Ukraine rebels fill hospital as clashes flare around Mariupol

Novoazovsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Wounded rebel fighter Islam Alibaterov limps painfully along the corridor of the hospital in the separatist-held town of Novoazovsk in east Ukraine.

Like others in the growing stream of insurgents now filling up the beds here, he was injured as fighting with Ukrainian forces flared up in recent days just outside the key government-held port city of Mariupol.

Despite the nominal truce in force, the key industrial hub has become the latest hotspot in the conflict in east Ukraine, stoking fears that pro-Russian rebel forces could be gearing up to try to seize the city.

"I was wounded by the explosion of a mortar," Alibaterov told AFP as he inched towards his room.

"A pile of bricks fell on me while a sniper was shooting at me. I found two bullets in my bulletproof vest." Once in his room, he displays the impact on the black vest.

Alibaterov, 29, -- who claims he came as a volunteer from his home region of Dagestan in Russia to fight with the rebels -- recounted how the fighting has focused on the tiny village of Shyrokine, some 15 kilometres east of Mariupol.

"The bombardments in Shyrokine happen every day. Last week we had some dead," said the soldier, as a nurse gave him a roll of toilet paper and bar of soap.

- Three rebels killed Monday -

Violence in Shyrokine -- where clashes have taken place on and off since the summer -- has intensified in the past week despite a brief lull after a ceasefire was meant to come into effect on February 15, said chief doctor Alexander Marunshenko.

"After the truce there were two or three days of calm last week, but since the weekend fighting has got heavier," he said, flipping through the hospital records to give an overview of the situation.

Since February 10, 39 battle-related injuries were treated here, including 16 in the last three days.

With the exception of two civilians, all those injured were rebel fighters hit by artillery shrapnel or bullets in Shyrokine.

Over the same period, five or six people died in hospital from injuries suffered in fighting, four in recent days, according to the doctor.

"Initially we received one or two casualties per day, mostly gunshot wounds from snipers, but since rebels have tried to retake the village the Ukrainians have been firing at them with grenades and mortars," says the doctor.

"The authorities told us last week that the village was 70 percent destroyed," he said.

Closer to Shyrokine a rebel commander said that three of his men had died in fighting Monday.

Igor Mavrin, an old soldier with a grey moustache, showed the damaged military truck that the three soldiers were travelling in when they were hit by a mortar.

"Shyrokine was a neutral zone before, but now the aim is to push them out of it," said Mavrin, standing near a sandy beach on the Azov Sea, with Mariupol visible in the distance.

"Last night again, at 02:30 am, they bombed us," he said, as mortar explosions echoed from farther inland.

At his feet, he showed the remains of a Smerch rocket that exploded at the rebels' base on February 13 without causing any casualties.

He insisted that Mariupol was a fundamental part of the territory that the rebels claim and should fall back under their control.

"Mariupol is part of the Donetsk region," he said. "It is necessary for us."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting