DONETSK/BERLIN: A gunbattle broke out in the center of the rebel-held Ukrainian city of Donetsk and residents ran for cover from artillery fire Tuesday, taking a government military offensive into the heart of the retreating pro-Moscow separatist rebellion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart will meet next week for the first time in months to try to end their confrontation over the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, their offices said.
In a prelude to the talks between Putin and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to visit the Ukrainian capital Kiev Saturday, her office said, to show support for the Ukrainian government.
A diplomatic solution would have to resolve a contradiction: with his troops advancing and victory possibly within reach, Poroshenko has little incentive to offer the kind of compromises that would allow Putin to achieve a face-saving deal.
Donetsk has for months been the headquarters of Ukraine’s separatist rebellion, with rebel flags flying over administrative buildings and the main avenue.
The center of the city was transformed into a battle zone Tuesday afternoon. A Reuters reporter said intense shooting broke out. Five or six rebel gunmen ran through a shopping mall car park, ducking behind cars and firing their guns.
It was impossible to tell who they were firing at; there was no sign of Ukrainian troops and the rebels remained in control of the center.
In a park near the rebel headquarters building, residents fled when they heard the sound of shelling nearby. Shops closed early, and cars with gunmen inside sped through the streets, ignoring red traffic lights.
A few hours earlier, fighting broke out in Makiyivka, a neighborhood on the eastern edge of Donetsk that until Tuesday had not seen any combat.
A resident of Makiyivka who gave his name as Svyatoslav said he had seen separatist fighters turning back an ambulance from the scene of the fighting, telling the crew there was no one left alive for them to treat.
“They’re having to retreat. They’re not able to stand their ground the way they want to,” he said of the rebels.
Ukrainian officials said their troops were also fighting rebels in the center of the other big separatist stronghold, the city of Luhansk, on the border with Russia.
The conflict, which began when street protests put a Western-leading leadership in power in Kiev against Moscow’s wishes, has dragged relations between Russia and the West to their worst level since the end of the Cold War.
The offices of the Ukrainian and Russian presidents said both men would attend a meeting in the Belarus capital, Minsk, on Aug. 26. The meeting is also to be attended by EU officials, and the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Officially, the meeting concerns relations between the EU and a customs union involving Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, but Ukraine will top the agenda.
The meeting will be the first between Putin and Poroshenko since a fleeting encounter in Normandy, France, in June at commemorations of the World War Two D-day landings.
European officials say privately that they will keep up pressure on Putin to not support the rebels, but at the same time Ukraine has to be persuaded not to ruthlessly press home its advantage on the battlefield.
That could humiliate the Kremlin and force it into an unpredictable reaction, officials say.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine has taken a heavy human toll. The United Nations says an estimated 2,086 people, including civilians and combatants, have been killed in the four-month conflict.
That figure is nearly double what it was at the end of July, when Ukrainian forces stepped up their offensive and fighting started in urban areas.