“The shelling killed 27 people and wounded more than 90 people,” Oleg Kalinin, a spokesman for the Mariupol mayor’s office, said, adding that the figure could rise as authorities conduct search operations. The mayor’s office said that several buildings went up in flames and cars were torched in the attack that saw Grad rockets smash into a packed residential district.
Mariupol lies on the Azov Sea and is the major city between mainland Russia and the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula. Heavy fighting in the region in the autumn raised fears that Russian-backed separatist forces would try to establish a land link between Russia and Crimea.
Rebel forces have positions within 10 kilometres from Mariupol’s eastern outskirts. The Defence Ministry said in a statement that there were three separate strikes from Grad multiple rocket launchers on Mariupol and surrounding areas.
“The area that came under attack was massive,” Mariupol mayor Yuriy Khotlubei said in a video statement. “The shelling was carried out by militants. This is very clearly Russian aggression that has caused terrible losses for the residents of the eastern part of our city”.
The Donetsk region prosecutor’s office said in a mid-afternoon statement that 21 people had been killed. Defence and police officials said rockets struck homes, a kindergarten, a market and shops.
There was no immediate report of how many people died in various locations.
A Ukrainian military checkpoint on a road leading out of the city toward rebel-held areas was also hit and one serviceman was killed, the Defence Ministry said.
Rocket strikes on Mariupol come as separatists have declared their intention to mount a multi-pronged offensive aimed at vastly increasing the territory under their control.
That would definitively upend recent European attempts to mediate an end to the fighting. Mariupol city council urged residents not to panic and to ignore rumors that Ukrainian armed forces were planning to withdraw.
“On the contrary, all units are on fully battle-ready. Security measures in the city have been strengthened,” the council said in a statement. No armed separatist units have been noted moving toward the city, the statement added.
Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe cited city morgue officials as saying they have received eight bodies. On Jan 13, a bus parked near an army checkpoint north of Mariupol was hit by a shell, resulting in the death of 13 people.
Ukraine blamed the rocket attack on separatists.
The OSCE’s special monitoring mission (SMM) in east Ukraine on Saturday expressed concern over the growing number of civilian casualties and called for restraint from all sides.
“The SMM strongly condemns the continuation of the fighting in residential areas. Using residential areas as firing positions attracts counter-firing to these areas, further endangering the lives of civilians,” the mission said in a statement. Clashes are taking place across the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatist insurgencies emerged in April following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Fighting has also been intensifying recently for the government-held town of Debaltseve.