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Ukraine accused of targeting civilians as government forces close in on rebel stronghold

In this picture taken on Wednesday, July 23, 2014, Soviet era drawings depicting the recommended procedures for civilians in the event of bombing are seen on the walls of a bomb shelter, in Donetsk, Ukraine. Five civilians were killed and 12 injured in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels on Monday, according to the mayor’s office. Residents in the rebel-held city are blaming Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has promised to stamp out the uprising in the eastern part of the country. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

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In this picture taken on Wednesday, July 23, 2014, Soviet era drawings depicting the recommended procedures for civilians in the event of bombing are seen on the walls of a bomb shelter, in Donetsk, Ukraine. Five civilians were killed and 12 injured in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels on Monday, according to the mayor’s office. Residents in the rebel-held city are blaming Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has promised to stamp out the uprising in the eastern part of the country. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

DONETSK, Ukraine - War literally came to Alexander Litvinenko's living room, when a missile punched a gaping hole into the wall of his ninth-floor apartment. The 53-year-old college philosophy teacher had just stepped into his study to check the news online, barely escaping death.

Others in the residential neighbourhood in northwest Donetsk were less fortunate. Five civilians were killed and 12 injured in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels on Monday, according to the mayor's office. Residents in the rebel-held city are blaming Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has promised to stamp out the uprising in the eastern part of the country.

"They're bombing the civilian population instead of taking their fight to the battlefield," said Natalya Kiselyova, a dental hygienist in the neighbourhood.

Kiselyova, 38, said she heard the whistle of rockets that landed in the neighbourhood, leaving a crater near a playground and slashing the bark off trees. "In western Ukraine they think we're terrorists. We're ordinary people who want to get up in the morning, go to work and sleep at night."

While the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week riveted international attention on the Ukraine conflict, locals have been struggling for months with spiraling violence. The Ukrainian military, buoyed after the fall of rebel stronghold Slovyansk this month, is now trying to encircle Donetsk and cut off any supply routes from Russia.

Government forces have a delicate task ahead as they try to chase out rebels from densely populated areas. New York-based Human Rights Watch last week called on Poroshenko to investigate cases in which Ukrainian forces appear to have targeted civilians.

Meanwhile, Ukraine blames the rebels for attacks on civilians, saying "terrorists" are trying to discredit government forces.

"We have evidence that the terrorists are intentionally shelling residential areas," said Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko.

"Ukrainian forces never use artillery or aviation against villages and towns," he said.

Even with the threat of Ukrainian strikes, a semblance of normalcy lingers as government forces close in. Buses ply the streets; people walk their dogs in parks; and municipal workers weed flower beds in the manicured city centre. At the same time, most businesses are closed and the city's wide avenues are largely devoid of people and cars. About 40 per cent of Donetsk's 1 million inhabitants have left the city, rebel leader Alexander Borodai said this week.

Residents in a neighbourhood in the western part of Donetsk had a scare Thursday when a shell pierced the top of a nine-story building. Nobody was hurt, and people gathered at the site said they were told by rescue workers that it had most probably been a dummy shell used for aiming artillery.

"We have nowhere to hide. We've been told to hide in the stairwells," said local resident Tatyana Slipenko, 56, who heard the impact while she was doing needlework in her apartment. She said she didn't plan to leave the city.

"Where should we go? This is our land. We're not going anywhere yet, even though we all have relations in Russia."

Litvinenko, the man whose apartment was wrecked, voiced no desire for revenge.

"The solution I see is to stop the shooting. Then Europe and Russia should step in to help start talks," he said. "Nothing will be resolved by force."

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