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Ukraine's army on outskirts of rebel stronghold Donetsk

| Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, 6:54 p.m.

DONETSK, Ukraine — Fighting raged on Sunday on the western outskirts of Donetsk as the advancing Ukrainian army tried to seize control of the rebel stronghold. In danger of being encircled, the separatists renewed their calls for Russia to send troops to their aid.

To support their operations, the pro-Russian fighters have been confiscating vehicles and food from residents and businesses in Donetsk. The center of the major industrial city is all but deserted, with few people or cars on the streets and most stores and restaurants closed.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian military operation, Alexei Dmitrashkovsky, said government soldiers were fighting to hold positions they had taken on the edge of Donetsk but were meeting resistance.

In the part of the city closest to the fighting, an artillery shell hit a school overnight, but no one was reported hurt.

“The shell went through the roof and exploded inside the building, setting off a fire, but we still don't know who fired it,” said Dmitry Levonchik, a 45-year-old coal miner. “Who needs this war? What are they fighting for?”

The sound of gunfire and explosions was heard just to the west.

Pavel Gubarev, the self-proclaimed governor of the separatist Donetsk region, said the rebels would win quickly if Russia sent troops.

“Of course it would be great to see Russian peacekeepers here: strong artillery units, tank brigades,” Gubarev said. “This war would be over in a day, maybe two.”

Many Donetsk residents have counted on help from Russia.

“What is Putin waiting for? He inspired us to fight,” said Ilya Sumyatin, a 38-year-old separatist fighter.

The separatist fighters in Donetsk have proclaimed the right to confiscate any “strategically important resources” to support their operations.

A major trucking company that delivers to grocery stores said it is suspending its operations in Donetsk since rebel fighters raided its warehouses.

An estimated 200,000 people in the city of 1 million have left their homes, said Ivan Volchok, an official in the regional administration who said his department helps organize travel to safer places in Ukraine. The Donetsk airport is closed, but buses and trains are running.

Fighting also has been heavy around Luhansk, the second-largest city held by the rebels. City officials said in a statement that three civilians were killed in the past day.

The ongoing battles had delayed the start of an international search for body parts in the fields where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down on July 17 with 298 people on board.

Dutch and Australian experts were able to begin their search on Friday. Early Sunday, the remains and personal belongings they had found so far were delivered in refrigerated trucks to the city of Kharkiv. The recovered remains will be checked there before being flown to the Netherlands.

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