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Civilian Convoy Comes Under Attack In Ukraine


There's been more heavy fighting in Eastern Ukraine today. Ukrainian government troops are said to be battling block-by-block inside the separatist-held city of Luhansk. In addition, they claim to be closer to retaking the major city in the region, Donetsk.


Also today, the Ukrainian military said, it has begun collecting the bodies of refugees killed in an alleged missile attack on a group of civilian vehicles. Ukraine blames the attack on pro-Russian rebels. NPR Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Eastern Ukraine and she joins us. Soraya, the Ukrainian government says, separatists attacked those refugees on Monday leaving many of them dead. What more can you tell us about that incident?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Yeah. They're sticking to that claim even though the pro-Russian separatists - not surprisingly - say, that they would never have done this - and why would they? Since they would arrange any convoys that went through their territory or the territory that they hold, which this was. So that remains a big question as to who did it. In terms of who's involved at this stage the government or the troops have begun retrieving some of the bodies - 17 so far. There are said to be dozens dead. We don't have more specifics than that. There do seem to be some survivors who are hospitalized, as well as the occupants of four or five cars in this convoy - this refugee convoy - that was mostly buses that are believed to have escaped the shelling. And the government is looking for them right now because they feel that they're very important witnesses to this.

SIEGEL: I gather you were in Donetsk this morning. What's happening there?

NELSON: Yeah. So we left Donetsk this morning. It's becoming increasingly difficult there. The water supply has been cut off for two days now. There's no end in sight on that. The pro-Russian separatists that run that town have imposed the death penalty for looting. They're imposing martial law. There are also gangs roaming around that are apparently - these are armed gangs. They're doing car-jackings and they're doing kidnappings. And so it's becoming increasingly difficult there. More than a third of the population has left the city according to officials and it very much does feel like a ghost town. And you hear the shelling getting closer and closer as the government troops sort of tighten that noose around Donetsk.

SIEGEL: Now turning to Luhansk where the Ukrainians say they're now fighting block-by-block against the separatists who hold the city. How important are those claims of Ukrainian military progress?

NELSON: Well, this is certainly the deepest they've been in the city - just if the accounts are correct. And again it's very difficult to verify any of this. Reporters cannot get there. Both the Ukrainian troops and the rebel fighters are not letting reporters in. And even if you are in there is no phone communication, or Internet, or water, or food or anything. I mean, it's very, very much or just dire straits there. So it's very hard to verify this. But if in fact they are as deep as being said this could be a real game changer. The rebels deny it of course.

SIEGEL: And on the diplomatic front, any progress to report?

NELSON: Well, the Foreign Minister's - the four Foreign Ministers Russia, Ukraine's and Germany and France - were supposed to get back together. That still hasn't happened. Although there was an announcement today that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, would be visiting Kiev this weekend. This is her first visit since the uprising there ousted former president Yanukovych. As well as a meeting that's being reported that is supposed to take place on August 26th. The Kremlin has announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart Pedro Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Soraya.

NELSON: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaking to us from Eastern Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.