Rebels press assault in eastern Ukraine

Fighting continued Thursday in the northern sector of the former cease-fire line in eastern Ukraine as Russian-backed rebels pressed their offensive aimed at moving the line farther west.

The battle has left Popasna, and many other towns in the Luhansk region, on edge. The mayor says about a quarter of the population of 22,000 has fled, including many children sent to live with relatives.

Shelling could be heard faintly in the distance Thursday, but it was not so distant Tuesday when a shell hit a house in a quiet residential neighborhood. The owner, Valentina, said she was at home when it happened.

“I was in shock,” she said. “I’m in shock now, because I grew up in this house. It was my parents’ house.  My father built it with his own hands.”

Popasna is about 40 kilometers from the besieged town of Debaltseve, which is nearly surrounded by rebel forces. Rebels controlled the entire area last year, before being pushed back by government troops.

At a nearly iced-in checkpoint along the road, Ukrainian National Guard spokesman Oleg Tikhov said morale was high but the situation was difficult.

“Our checkpoint near Hirske village was shelled during the night, and it is still continuing,” Tikhov said. “Now there is a battle near Popasna, but the National Guard continues to serve at the checkpoints.”

Tikhov said the shelling increased after the latest so-called humanitarian convoy crossed from Russia into rebel-held territory last week. Kyiv says Moscow is using the convoys to ferry in weapons, ammunition and supplies for the separatists.

Officials and local residents say Ukrainian troops will try to hold the line, but they acknowledge the difficulty of fighting what they say are not only rebels but also regular Russian troops equipped with heavy weapons.

Meanwhile, the European Union was set to expand economic sanctions against Russia as punishment for the new round of fighting, but so far, sanctions have not persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin to change his policy.

There is also an effort to convene new peace talks, but with rhetoric on all sides escalating and rebel forces gaining ground, there is little hope of renewing the cease-fire anytime soon.