Pro-Moscow separatist forces, likely augmented by Russian soldiers, have began a bombardment of a major Ukrainian coastal city.
Mariupol sits between pro-Russian occupied areas and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March. The city had previously seen clashes between Ukrainian security forces and separatists in May.
But Mariupol remained in Ukrainian hands and avoided the destruction wrought during battles between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists that have swept across eastern Ukraine throughout the summer.
The city of half a million is now facing bombardment and possible invasion by Russian-backed separatist forces.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has released a statement saying that heavy fighting has taken place to the east of Mariupol between the Ukrainian army and “irregular armed groups” for the past day. There’s speculation that armed groups may move into Mariupol once night falls.
Russian forces have started a bombardment of the fields surrounding Mariupol with Grad rocket systems that have likely been supplied from Russia. Grads are Soviet-developed rockets usually fired from a truck-mounted missile battery.
The express purpose of the missile fire seems to be clearing out Ukrainian military vehicles, providing the advancing separatist force with direct access to the city.
Mariupol is a strategic port city on the Azov Sea. If taken, the city would provide a link between the rebel capital of Donetsk and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March.
A corridor from Russia to Crimea would allow Russia to more easily resupply its position while preventing the Crimean economy from collapsing.
A roadside YouTube video from the fields outside of Mariupol shows the Grad bombardment in full swing.
A second YouTube video from inside of Mariupol shows that the bombardment is happening directly outside of the city.
According to The Interpreter, there have been claims and counter-claims by both separatists and the Ukrainian military that the other side is fleeing the battle after sustaining significant losses.
Below is a video from the AP showing destruction along the road from Donetsk to Mariupol.
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