Dozens of Ukrainian refugees trying to escape continued fighting were reportedly killed on Monday outside the eastern city of Luhansk when a convoy of buses trying to ferry them to safety was struck by rocket fire.
Both the Ukrainian Army and rebel commanders accused the other of firing the rockets that hit the convoy. Early reports indicate that women and children were among those killed.
"A powerful artillery strike hit a refugee convoy near the area of Khryashchuvatye and Novosvitlivka," announced Anatoly Proshin, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Army. "The force of the blow on the convoy was so strong that people were burned alive in the vehicles — they weren't able to get themselves out."
But rebel leaders—who reject the authority of the Kiev government and have battled to retain control of the east against an increasingly intense offensive by the Ukraine Army—deny their forces were responsible for the attack.
"The Ukrainians themselves have bombed the road constantly with airplanes and Grads, " Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told Reuters following news of the attack. "It seems they've now killed more civilians like they've been doing for months now." He added, "We don't have the ability to send Grads into that territory."
The Ukraine Army has been shelling shelling rebel positions in and around Luhansk for weeks and over the weekend declared that it had taken control of key parts of the city.
The latest civilian deaths add to what the the United Nations has called an increasingly dire humanitarian situation for Ukrainians now living inside the war zone. More than 2,000 people have been killed in the months of fighting, according to the most recent UN estimates, though accurate statistics remain elusive. To help stem the crisis, a large Russian convoy of aide destined for the region remains unable to cross the nearby border as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) awaits guarantees that both sides will offer their staff and supplies safe passage.
Ongoing talks in Berlin between Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany continued on Monday, but an agreement to end the fighting has not yet been reached.
According to the New York Times:
At the talks in Berlin, which lasted for five hours, German officials sought to keep discussions among foreign ministers focused on the larger issues and to avoid getting bogged down in discussions surrounding the aid convoy. Speaking to reporters after the departure of the other three foreign ministers, the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said the diplomats were to return to their respective capitals to consult on how talks could be continued.
Mr. Steinmeier said a decision could be reached by Tuesday but did not elaborate.