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Ukraine urges rebels to let civilians leave besieged cities

Kiev urged separatist rebels in war-torn eastern Ukraine on Monday (Aug 4) to allow civilians to flee besieged cities, amid major power and water shortages.

DONETSK: Kiev urged separatist rebels in war-torn eastern Ukraine on Monday (Aug 4) to allow civilians to flee besieged cities in the face of a looming humanitarian crisis, with major power and water shortages. The call came as Malaysian experts joined Australian and Dutch police who have been combing the area for remains of the crash victims.

Civilians in the blighted industrial region have borne the brunt of the relentless fighting between government and pro-Moscow rebel forces, with both sides accused of firing on built-up areas, resulting in more than 10 civilian deaths at the weekend.

Ukraine's military called on insurgents in the main rebel-held hubs of Donetsk, Lugansk and another frontline city of Gorlivka to agree to "humanitarian corridors" for several hours each day to allow civilians to escape.

"Civilians can identify themselves with a white flag for groups of people and a wide white armband on the sleeve of each person," it said in a statement.

The Lugansk mayor has warned that the city of 420,000 was on the brink of a "humanitarian catastrophe" after days without power or running water. In the main city of Donetsk, where six civilians were killed at the weekend, local authorities reported explosions and bursts of heavy fire throughout the night.

Over 100,000 people have fled for other parts of Ukraine since the fighting erupted in April, according to the United Nations, while Russia claims another half a million have crossed its border in search of refuge. The exodus continued Monday with terrified local residents waiting at Donetsk train station surrounded by piles of baggage.

"We are leaving because war is going on. They are shooting. There was shooting half an hour before we left," Igor, who was heading to the western city of Lviv, told AFP.

"We are not going away forever. We are going to friends, to the part of Ukraine where they are not shooting... Terrible things are happening," his mother Nelya said.

RETREAT ACROSS THE BORDER

Government forces have made major gains over the past month and say they are close to cutting off fighters in Donetsk from the Russian border and their comrades in Lugansk.

On Monday however, the Ukrainian military said a number of troops were forced to retreat into Russia after hours of missile and mortar bombardment from across the border. Russia's security services told local media that border guards allowed 438 Ukrainian soldiers to cross into their territory after they agreed to hand over their arms.

Ukraine's Defence Minister Valeriy Geletey had pledged in a BBC interview Sunday that there "will be victory and very soon" after more than three months of civil war that have claimed over 1,150 lives. He admitted however that "it would not be easy to liberate" Donetsk and Lugansk where rebels have holed up and pledged to fight to the death.

MALAYSIAN EXPERTS AT MH17 SITE

As the violence continued, Malaysian experts joined the teams combing the vast crash site of the Malaysia Airlines flight that was blown out of the sky on July 17, killing all 298 people onboard.

A Dutch military transport plane carried a single coffin filled with human remains which Ukraine said had been found in the search operation, as well as DNA and belongings that had been kept in the rebel-held city of Donetsk for some time.

So far, some 220 bodies have been flown back to the Netherlands - which suffered the most casualties in the crash - for the painstaking identification process.

The United States accuses insurgents of downing MH17 with a surface-to-air missile likely supplied by Russia, while Moscow and the rebels blame the Ukrainian military.

SANCTIONS BITING?

The United States and European Union have slapped Moscow with the toughest sanctions since the collapse of the Soviet Union over the Kremlin's alleged arming and instigation of the separatist rebellion.

In a sign that the sanctions were having an impact, Russian low-cost carrier Dobrolet was forced to cancel all flights from Monday because of scrapped leasing deals for Boeing aircraft. Germany also said it had cancelled a major deal to provide a fully-equipped training camp to Russian forces.

The measures have yet to quell the fighting however and the United States has warned that Russian support for the rebels is increasing. Russia on Monday announced new military drills that will involve 100 aircraft on its southern flank in the latest in a series of manoeuvres likely to alarm Ukraine.