Intense shelling rocks eastern Ukraine.
SEVERODONETSK, Ukraine — Several intense artillery barrages by Russia-backed separatists on Saturday targeted a pocket of Ukrainian government-controlled territory around the town of Svitlodarsk, a spot that has worried security analysts for weeks because of its proximity to industrial infrastructure, including storage tanks for poisonous gas.
The artillery fire picked up along the entire length of the front line, Ukraine’s interior ministry said in a statement in which it reported mortars, artillery shells and rocket-propelled grenades being fired “along the whole line of confrontation.” It was about double the level of the previous two days, the statement said.
The Ukrainian defense ministry said Saturday night that two soldiers had been killed and five injured.
The most frequently targeted area from midnight until about 2 p.m. on Saturday was in the vicinity of Svitlodarsk, near a chemical plant in separatist-controlled territory about six miles away. The site has seemed ripe for provocation, Ukrainian military analysts have said.
The sprawling plant is one of Europe’s largest fertilizer factories. A stray shell from returning fire from the Ukrainian Army risks hitting pressurized tanks and more than 12 miles of pipelines holding poisonous ammonia gas. The United States has warned the Russian government could stage an incident with poisonous chemicals to justify intervention.
Residents in the village of Luhansk, near Svitloldarsk, said both sides had been opening fire in recent days.
“When we are very nervous, we will leave,” said Yana Tinyakova, 31. “But we built this house with our hands. We don’t want to leave. This is ours. We have no place to escape to. If even we had a place to go, we don’t want to, because this is our home.”
The area is also seen as a potential flash point for a nearby water and pipe network that crosses the front line and supplies drinking water to several million people on both sides of the conflict, including residents of the city of Donetsk, one of the capitals of the two self-declared separatist states backed by Moscow in eastern Ukraine. A cutoff of that water supply amid fighting in 2014 hastened an outflow of refugees from the city.
On Saturday, Russia’s Interfax news agency, cited Eduard Basurin, a spokesman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, as saying that shelling had damaged a pumping station and water pipes. He said the water supply was again at risk.
With each side of the conflict striving to control the narrative as much as any disputed piece of ground, the reported loss of water for residents in the Russian-backed areas came as a setback for Ukraine as it reinforced Russian assertions of dire conditions for civilians.
President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday ordered ministers in his cabinet and members of Parliament to travel to front-line villages, the head of the Ukrainian security council said.
The move seemed intended to signal to Ukrainians that he was rallying his government to defend the country, while officials could also help draw international attention to civilian suffering in front-line towns.