Ukrainian Govt Troops Take Over Much of Luhansk

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) -

After days of street battles and weeks of shelling, Ukrainian troops made a significant push Wednesday into rebel-held territory, claiming control over a large part of the separatist stronghold of Luhansk and nearly encircling Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city.

The advance of the Ukrainian army against pro-Russian separatists comes as the civilian death toll is mounting from sustained artillery strikes and rebel cities are slipping into a humanitarian disaster. At least 52 deaths were reported Wednesday, along with 64 wounded — and due to the dangers of the war zone in eastern Ukraine, no deaths were reported from Luhansk, meaning the actual toll could be even higher.

Ukrainian troops have been trying for weeks to drive the rebels out of Luhansk and cut off Donetsk, a city of 1 million that has shrunk by a third as frightened residents fled. In the last few days, several neighborhoods in Donetsk have been hit with sustained artillery fire and fighting on the city’s outskirts has become more intense.

Hard-hit Luhansk has been without electricity, running water or phone connections for 18 days due to the fighting. Russia has sent a massive aid convoy to help residents there but it is still stuck at the border, not yet approved by Kiev because its proposed route lies through rebel-held territory.

Ukraine has accused Russia of arming and supporting the separatists, a charge Russia denies. Ukraine and the West fear the massive aid convoy — over 200 trucks – will be used in some way to help the separatist militia.