Jail break amid battle to control Donetsk

Rockets slammed into a high-security prison yesterday in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, igniting a riot that allowed more than 100 prisoners to flee, authorities in eastern Ukraine said.

Prisoners are visible through a wall destroyed by shelling at a high-security facility in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Picture: AP

Donetsk city council spokesman Maxim Rovinsky said a direct rocket hit killed at least one inmate and left three others severely wounded. In the chaos, he said 106 prisoners escaped, including some jailed for murder, robbery and rape.

In the past week Ukrainian government forces have intensified their military operations and surrounded Donetsk, the largest city in rebel-held eastern Ukraine. Exchanges of rocket fire and deaths from shelling have become a feature of daily life and hundreds of thousands have chosen to flee. The prison break became possible after a substation providing the building with electricity was damaged, disabling the facility’s alarm system. “Extremely dangerous prisoners are now free. It is hard to know the extent of threat this poses to the city,” said Mr Rovinsky.

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Officials with Ukraine’s state penitentiary service said later that 34 prisoners had returned to the jail, however that claim has proved impossible to verify.

Both Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russian rebels who want independence for their eastern region have deployed heavy and often imprecise weapons in the battle that began in April. Flats and other civilian buildings have frequently been hit, adding to the mounting death toll among civilians.

Mr Rovinsky said at least ten homes, shops and garages were hit by overnight rockets yesterday. He added that 20,000 people had no electricity in Donetsk and an estimated 400,000 have fled the city, which had a pre-war population of one million. Many shops have closed and supplies are dwindling at the few still open.

Ukrainian government forces are preparing for the final stage of recapturing the city from pro-Russian separatist rebels after making significant gains that have divided rebel forces, a military spokesman said yesterday.

Andriy Lysenko said Kiev’s forces had now cut off Donetsk from the other main rebel-held city of Luhansk on the border with Russia. “The forces of the ‘anti-terrorist operation’ are preparing for the final stage of liberating Donetsk. Our forces have completely cut Donetsk off from Luhansk. We are working for liberating both towns, but it’s better to liberate Donetsk first – it is more important,” he said.

The government says it is tightening a cordon around the separatists in Donetsk amid changes in their leadership and desertions in their ranks. But huge swathes of the east are still under rebel control, including the border city of Luhansk, Horlivkato the north of Donetsk and Makiyivka to its east.

United Nations agencies say more than 1,100 people have been killed in four months of fighting between the separatists who seek union with Russia and troops representing a pro-
western government.

Mr Lysenko said government forces had cut off the Donetsk based rebels from their comrades in Luhansk, however the key town of Krasny Luch, which lies between the two cities, is not under government control.The town is a rail and road junction through which Russian military equipment has been transported to the rebels.

Though all sides recognise the seriousness of the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine, Kiev and its western allies suspect Russia might use the situation to move its forces into the country.

Kiev said on Saturday it had headed off, by diplomatic means, an attempt by Russia to send troops into Ukraine under the guise of peacekeepers accompanying a humanitarian convoy sanctioned by the Red Cross. Moscow dismissed the allegation as a “fairy tale”.

Many of those in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine distrust the new central government in Kiev, which came to power after the February ousting of former president Viktor Yanukovych, whose power base was in eastern Ukraine.

Fighting began a month after Russia annexed Ukraine’s peninsula of Crimea in March.