Deadly Ukraine rocket strike another shot in propaganda war

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Shyrokyne (Ukraine) (AFP) - On a deserted road in east Ukraine, a missile strike briefly became the focus of the propaganda war that rages unabated despite the lull in fighting between pro-Russian rebels and the government.

A ceasefire has tamped down much of the violence for weeks now but both sides are desperate to blame each other for any isolated clashes that violate the truce.

And this time round the rebels were keen to show what they said was a government missile strike to a group of international monitors and selected journalists.

Hours before, pro-Russian rebel official Eduard Basurin made an early-morning phone call to journalists, instructing them: "We are going to the south, to show you something."

The ten-car convoy carrying reporters pulled up just before reaching Shyrokyne, a village divided between Ukrainian and rebel forces that is close to the strategic port of Mariupol, Kiev's largest remaining stronghold in the insurgency-hit east.

But only video journalists and photographers were allowed to make the final kilometre-long journey to see the wrecked vehicles.

Photographs and video footage are prized weapons in the propaganda war between the pro-Russian separatists and the Kiev government.

"It's too dangerous, we can't take everyone," explained Basurin, military representative for the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.

The chosen few were joined by three observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who had recently arrived from Mariupol.

All eyes were on the mangled remains of a civilian car and a small rebel pick-up truck, lying by the side of a road bordered on one side by the sea, and on the other by crater-scarred fields.

At 4:09pm precisely (1409 GMT) on Sunday, according to Basurin, the anti-tank missile was fired as two cars travelled along the road.

The car accelerated and crashed into a bend, avoiding the missile and leaving the passengers unharmed, he added.

The pick-up, carrying a rebel and a civilian who had asked to be escorted, bore the full brunt of the missile, killing the civilian and injuring the driver, according to the military spokesman.

"I hope that the OSCE will reveal the truth of what is happening on our land," Basurin said to the cameras.

"The shot could not have been fired from the sea or from the fields (where the rebels have dug trenches)," he added. "Ukrainian positions are located on the hill at the end of the road."

- 'Not 100% sure' -

But the OSCE representatives wondered why the military pickup was pointing towards the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, when separatists claim it was headed to Shyrokyne, in the opposite direction.

It had been rotated in order to tow it, replied a rebel, prompting the OSCE monitor to query whether rebel fighters on the ground were communicating properly with their commanders.

"That's why I'm here," insisted Basurin. "I'm not 100 percent sure, but let's say 98 percent, that our orders reach our men on the ground".

Another observer told the press that they had "an idea of ​​where the shot came from" but that "who shot and why cannot be determined now.

"At the front of the truck, streaks of blood are still visible on the passenger seat," he said.

All the while, his colleagues forensically photographed the scene and inspected the vehicles.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko took to the airwaves for his daily briefing.

The situation in the east "was gradually stabilising," he told viewers, but "armed rebel provocations continue along the front-line".

Both sides accuse each other of violating the peace agreements signed in Minsk last month aimed at ending the year-long conflict that has claimed over 6,000 lives.

Under the terms of the ceasefire, the two sides agreed to pull back their heavy weapons to create a buffer zone of between 50 kilometres and 140 kilometres (31 miles and 87 miles), depending on the range of the weaponry.

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