Ukrainian port city divided after deadly rocket attack

(MENAFN- The Peninsula) Outside the church a day after a barrage of rocket fire killed 30 people in this Ukrainian port city, the war-torn region's divisions were on full display.

"Those Ukrainian flags don't belong here," said 58-year-old Yelena as she exited a mass at the Orthodox church in honour of the victims of Saturday's attack, while others shouted "shame on you" to those holding them.

The dozen or so people holding the yellow and blue flags or wearing them on their shoulders obviously felt differently, and the tensions were a sign of eastern Ukraine's divided loyalties since war began in April between the country's military and pro-Russian rebels.

Eastern Ukraine is heavily Russified, especially in comparison to the ex-Soviet republic's west, but it is not without a large population of nationalists who remain opposed to the rebels allegedly backed by Moscow.

Viktor Zarubin, a 15-year-old holding one of the Ukrainian flags at the church and a resident of the neighbourhood hit in the attack, said he had come both to pay homage to the victims and to "support the unity of Ukraine".

"I was alone at my house when the shelling began," Zarubin said. "I lay down on the ground and I crawled into the basement. It was like an earthquake."

He added that he was "afraid for me and my family."

Mariupol is the last major city controlled by Kiev in the country's two separatist provinces along the border with Russia, and rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko announced on Saturday the insurgents were launching an offensive to take it.

The rebels did not claim responsibility for the rocket fire, but monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said they had come from separatist-held territory.

The OSCE confirmed 19 Grad and Uragan rocket impacts around the city of some 500,000 people and said it was certain there were more.

They served as a reminder of the dangers facing the region's residents in a conflict that has already killed more than 5,000 people and caused around a million to flee their homes.

- 'When Ukraine was normal' -

Heavy fighting occurred in early September on the outskirts of Mariupol, but only sporadic violence has hit the city since then. Saturday's strikes took some residents by surprise.

"We did not expect that in Mariupol," said Yulia Kuzmina, a 27-year-old whose car and flat were damaged in the attack. "It's dangerous here too now."

She was emotional and confused over what to do next, having already fled her home in the separatist bastion of Donetsk further north due to the violence there.

Others however were intent on assigning blame. Zarubin, the 15-year-old, was quick to blame Russian forces, with Moscow accused of backing the rebels with troops and weapons, charges it strongly denies.

"The separatists don't have the know-how to operate military equipment. It's the work of professional soldiers," he said, referring to Russian troops.

The governor of the Ukrainian administration in the Donetsk region was among the 100 or so people to attend Sunday's mass, and he encouraged those displaying the flags.

"The fact that there are Ukrainian flags in front of the church says a lot," said Oleksandr Kikhtenko. "It shows the unity of people," he added despite the presence of those opposed to the display.

For Yelena, the woman who objected to the flags when leaving the church, the Ukrainian army was responsible for Saturday's attack.

"We all know who was behind it," she said. "It's an organised provocation by the forces posted here."

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