Three civilians killed as east Ukraine shelling flares up

A firefighter extinguishes a house burned in shelling between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels in Oktyabrsky village, near Donetsk on August 12, 2015 (AFP Photo/Aleksey Filippov)

Kiev (AFP) - Three civilians have been killed in east Ukraine as government forces claimed Saturday that shelling by pro-Russian separatists hit a record high since the start of a tattered truce in February.

Authorities in Ukrainian-controlled territory along the frontline told AFP that shelling over the past day had killed two civilians and wounded 15 more.

Meanwhile pro-Moscow separatist officials on the other side said that bombardments had claims the life of one local resident and left three injured.

Ukraine's army reported coming under the heaviest level of artillery and rocket fire since the two sides signed a February truce deal that has been repeatedly broken since.

"Over the past 24 hours we recorded the highest level of firing by the illegal arms groups for the past six months," military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said, adding that two soldiers had been wounded.

Kiev's pro-Western forces this week have been fighting the militias for control of a strategic highway linking the government-held southeastern port of Mariupol with Donetsk, which sits to the north.

Most of the road is currently overseen by pro-Kiev units. But its capture could potentially allow the militias to step up their stop-start campaign to capture Mariupol -- a port city of nearly half a million that is on the western edge of the loosely-defined demilitarised zone.

The industrial port exports most of the east's factory output and provides a land bridge between rebel territories and the Russian-occupied Crimea peninsula.

Russia denies any links to the insurgents and officially provides them only with political backing at negotiations and UN Security Council forums.

But Ukraine's Western allies accuse the Kremlin of orchestrating and arming the uprising in revenge for Kiev's decision to pull out of Moscow's orbit and hitch its future to the European Union.

US Secretary of State John Kerry called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Thursday to express "grave concern" about the increased number of separatist attacks recently.

The United Nations estimates the violence has killed more than 6,800 people since April 2014 and has driven at least 1.4 million from their homes.