Hours after a new peace initiative for Ukraine began taking shape, mortar shells rained down Thursday on the center of the main rebel-held city in the east, killing at least 13 people at a bus stop.
The deaths in Donetsk sparked wrath and grief that was swiftly exploited by pro-Russian rebel leaders, who paraded captive Ukrainian troops through the city to be punched, kicked and insulted by enraged residents.
Diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany had met in Berlin a day ago to thrash out a tentative dividing line from which the warring sides would pull back their heavy weapons. That solution already looks doomed.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine is now fiercer than ever in some locations, NATO’s top commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said Thursday in Brussels. He added that weapons systems seen now in the region have in the past heralded a fresh incursion by Russian troops.
It is far from clear who fired Thursday’s deadly mortars and both sides accused the other.
Separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said the front line will now be pushed back away from the fringes of Donetsk to avoid any similar attacks.
In Kiev, President Petro Poroshenko appeared to hold out hope for a new cease-fire, but said retribution would await anybody violating the peace.
“If the enemy doesn’t want to abide by the cease-fire, if he doesn’t want to put an end to the suffering of peaceful people, Ukrainian villages and town, we will smash them in the teeth,” Poroshenko told a meeting of top defense officials.
Russia has always denied providing arms to separatist forces but Western military officials say the quality of the heavy weapons the rebels have means they could only come from Moscow.