Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Terrified civilians fled as intense clashes Monday between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian rebels left at least four people dead on the outskirts of the insurgent bastion of Donetsk.
Separatist fighters in masks and camouflage fatigues closed off the roads in the area around the train station and airport on the edge of the city as the sound of shelling and Grad rockets thundered nearby.
"There is a war going on there, get the hell out," yelled a camouflaged insurgent waving his automatic weapon.
Some local residents scrambled into minibuses that sped away from the fighting while others were left to run for their lives on foot.
Not all were so lucky though and local authorities said that at least five civilians were killed and 12 injured in the clashes.
A rebel fighter told AFP that government troops had attacked their positions close to the transport hubs at around 10:00 am (0700 GMT).
"They came within about two kilometres (over one mile) of the station," said insurgent gunman Volodya, 19, who declined to give his surname.
An unknown number of Ukrainian troops have been camped out -- surrounded by heavily armed rebel militias -- at the airport since a fierce battle gutted the gleaming main terminal in May.
Now a military spokesman said government troops were battling back control of the districts around the airport and had broken through the rebel cordon to reach their comrades inside.
"The active phase of the anti-terrorist operation is continuing vigorously in Donetsk," military spokesman Vladislav Seleznev said.
Sporadic clashes have taken place around the separatist stronghold as both sides have continued to ignore calls for a ceasefire following the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on Thursday some 60 kilometres away.
But Monday's battles were the closest that they have come to the heart of this city of nearly one million.
- 'Beware of snipers' -
As the fighting flared in the industrial centre authorities warned residents close to the violence not to go outside or leave the confines of their homes and said the fighting had set a market ablaze close to the station.
"I live there, how can I get down to find my daughter," begged one local, who identified herself as Tatyana, as rebels warned civilians back.
A little later an AFP photographer gained access to the deserted station and saw rebels helping to load passengers and their belongings onto a waiting train.
Several large columns of black smoke could be seen rising from the direction of the airport, along with the sound of intermittent mortar fire.
"Watch out for snipers," warned an insurgent gunman peering out in the direction of the firing.
Rebel leaders lashed out at Kiev over the fighting and claimed it was aimed at stopping international investigators coming to the region to probe the downing of jet.
"Kiev is doing everything it can to stop the experts coming and coincidentally fighting started in Donetsk today," said Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.
Borodai told journalists that rebels had evacuated 300 civilians from the neighbourhoods affected by the fighting and that there had been a "for now unknown number" of casualties.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Monday that he had given an order for government forces to "immediately" halt all military operations within a 40-kilometre radius of the crash site.