MARIUPOL, Ukraine: Heavy combat fire rocked the outskirts of the strategic Ukrainian port city of Mariupol Friday, AFP correspondents said, just hours before talks open on a possible cease-fire.
A series of explosions were also heard in the main eastern rebel hub of Donetsk overnight, apparently coming from the city's airport, an AFP journalist said.
Mariupol has become the latest flashpoint in the near five-month conflict in eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian rebels wage a counteroffensive that has seen swaths of land 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 reported heavy fire from the east of the city Friday, with Ukrainian volunteer militias reporting attacks by insurgents on several checkpoints.
Ukrainian government forces had for weeks been besieging Donetsk, the biggest city in the largely Russian-speaking industrial east of the country in their battle to rout the rebels.
But the troops have now pulled back from positions around the city in the face of the insurgent advance.
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 cease-fire.
Russia denies it has any involvement in the conflict but NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Moscow Thursday if no peace deal is agreed.