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Fighting Escalates In Eastern Ukraine As Key Cities Contested


Fighting escalated today in Eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces trying to regain control of two regional capitals there. While in Berlin, the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine met to figure out a way to stop the fighting. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Eastern Ukraine in the city of Donetsk, which is one of the key cities the rebels control, and she joins us now. Soraya, what can you tell us about the fighting today in Eastern Ukraine?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, it was particularly bad in the city of Luhansk, which is north of Donetsk where I am, about a three-hour drive. Pro-Russian separatists - and Ukraine did confirm this, shot down an Ukrainian and MiG-29, a fighter jet over the city that had been there to, I guess, to attack rebel positions. And at the same time, Ukrainian troops were able to apparently get fairly deep into the city from a southern entrance point, which is very vital and very key.

Now they are said to have taken a police station and there are also reports that they've taken a hospital, that would actually be very key to them. These would be Ukrainian troops being able to get into the city and put a - perhaps put a faster end to this conflict that's going on. So, you know, we're still waiting. It's very difficult to get a lot of information because cellphone coverage does not work there. The city is without electricity and water. It's quite difficult to really ascertain the facts as they're being presented by both sides.

VIGELAND: OK, so that's in Luhansk. What about where you are in Donetsk?

NELSON: Well, the fighting intensified here today as well. And Ukrainian troops were said to be a lot closer than they've been before, certainly to the West where we were today we could hear a lot of shelling and gunfights and the water apparently is about to be cut off to the city because of intense fighting to the north in a city called Yasynuvata. That's a little town actually, and this is also the place that Donetsk residents were taking the train from because the train station here is closed since they're fairly encircled here by Ukrainian troops. So, that option is no longer open to them, and again, the more pressing issue is whether in fact the water supply will be cut off.

VIGELAND: Well, earlier today, I know you met with the commander of a separatist group that's been shelling Ukrainian positions near where you are. What did he have to say?

NELSON: He didn't seem too concerned about these reports that the Ukrainians were getting closer. He described it as a tug-of-war, you know, sometimes one side gets a little closer and the other times the other side gets a little closer. You know, he says they're there to stay. He also denied that they were mercenaries or coming across the border. He claimed there were only a few Russians among the 350 people under his command. He called himself a simple Russian soldier however, even though he was Ukrainian, but he thought that they would still win.

VIGELAND: Soraya, what have the foreign ministers been trying to do about this fighting?

NELSON: Well, a German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was saying that it's paramount to get humanitarian aid to the people who live here in Eastern Ukraine, particularly in Luhansk, which, as I mentioned, has no water or power. And it hasn't had that for weeks. They're working on this Russian convoy, which apparently is getting closer to being allowed to cross into Eastern Ukrainian territory. This is something the Ukrainians were reluctant to do initially because they felt the Russians might use this to try and resupply the separatist.

VIGELAND: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Soraya, thank you.

NELSON: You're welcome, Tess. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.