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Fighting in Ukraine's eastern hotspots despite truce talks

Heavy combat fire rocked the outskirts of the strategic Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Friday (Sep 5), AFP correspondents said, just hours before talks open on a possible ceasefire.

MARIUPOL: Heavy combat raged on the outskirts of the strategic Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Friday (Sep 5), threatening to undermine talks aimed at sealing a ceasefire after almost five months of conflict. The main eastern rebel hub of Donetsk also came under sustained shelling overnight after several days of calm, AFP journalists said, with at least five civilians reported killed.

Mariupol has become the latest flashpoint in the insurgency as pro-Russian rebels wage a counter-offensive that has seen swathes of land across the southeast seized from government forces in just a matter of days.

Residents of the government-held city on the Sea of Azov have been digging in for fear of a major onslaught by the rebels, apparently backed by Russian troops and firepower. AFP journalists witnessed heavy fire from the east of the city on Friday, with Ukrainian volunteer militias reporting attacks on several checkpoints by insurgents backed by tanks.

"The situation is quite tense," said a fighter with the pro-Kiev volunteer Azov Battalion who identified himself only as "Zhivchick".

“This is war, and you never know what is going to happen in the next 10 or 15 minutes," he told AFP. "We are awaiting orders... we are ready to move towards Novoazovsk to reclaim our territory," he said, referring to a seaside town near the Russian border seized by rebels last week.

He said reconnaissance patrols out from Mariupol had seen a column of five tanks as well as armoured vehicles and military trucks. Any seizure of the industrial city would be key to creating a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula annexed by Moscow in March.

AFP journalists also reported shelling through the night in and around Donetsk, the biggest city held by the rebels in the largely Russian-speaking industrial east.

Ukrainian government forces had been besieging Donetsk for weeks in their battle to rout the separatist fighters but have now pulled back in the face of the insurgent advance.

Donetsk city council said that five civilians were killed in the overnight shelling and another nine wounded. In the northern district of Gladkovka, residents said more than a dozen shells had fallen on Thursday.

"We heard the bombs," recounted 25-year-old Nikolai, who did not want to give his surname. "We threw ourselves to the ground, and a second or two later there were more explosions. One landed in the street, the next one hit a building."

While the source of the bombardments was not known, the area is not far from Donetsk airport, where loyalists forces remain in control.

The renewed fighting comes despite hopes that talks in the Belarussian capital Minsk later Friday on a peace plan unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin will lead to a ceasefire. Russia denies it has any involvement in the conflict but Western leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Moscow on Friday if no peace deal is agreed.