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Ukraine rebels close in on strategic Donetsk airport; at least 3 killed in shelling

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DONETSK, Ukraine — Rebels in eastern Ukraine appeared to be successfully closing in on the government-held airport in Donetsk Wednesday, a strategic victory for the pro-Russian separatists that further undermines a shaky cease-fire in the region.

Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko told journalists in Kiev that the airport was still under control of government troops who were "brilliantly carrying out their duty" and holding ground there.

However, rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying that the rebels control 90 percent of the airport, which has been the focus of the worst fighting in the region for weeks.

"In two, or maximum three, days the Donetsk airport will come under our control," he said.

While it was impossible to get within close range of the airport because of the ongoing fighting, an AP reporter in Donetsk saw that artillery fire hitting the airport was coming from government-held positions outside the city — an indication that the airport may no longer be under Kiev's control.

PHOTO: Smoke rises over a residential neighborhood near the airport after shelling in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. Rebels in eastern Ukraine appear to be successfully closing in on the government-held airport of Donetsk, a strategic victory for the pro-Russian separatists that further undermines a shaky cease-fire in the region. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Smoke rises over a residential neighborhood near the airport after shelling in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. Rebels in eastern Ukraine appear to be successfully closing in on the government-held airport of Donetsk, a strategic victory for the pro-Russian separatists that further undermines a shaky cease-fire in the region. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

The reporter also saw the bodies of three people killed after a shell exploded in a school courtyard in a residential neighborhood near the airport. Some 70 schoolchildren were in the school at the time, according to the local authorities, although those killed and the five wounded were all adults.

Soon after the school was hit, another shell fell on a bus stop nearby. The city council of Donetsk said in a statement that six people were killed and several wounded, but those figures could not be confirmed on the ground.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov continued to call on the West to look into allegations that there are mass graves in eastern Ukraine of those killed by Ukrainian troops.

"It's a terrible tragedy. It's an obvious war crime," he was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies. "We count on Western capitals not being silent about these facts."


Laura Mills in Kiev, Ukraine, and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed reporting.

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