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Ukraine’s rebel forces are conducting an offensive to capture the government-held airport in Donetsk, officials say.

Pro-Russian rebels have tried several times in recent weeks to take the airport, which lies to the north-west of the city.

The insurgents continued an offensive – begun on Wednesday, October 1 – on “a broad front”, the Ukrainian military says.

An official truce in place in eastern Ukraine has often been violated.

Ukraine’s rebel forces are conducting an offensive to capture the government-held airport in Donetsk

Ukraine’s rebel forces are conducting an offensive to capture the government-held airport in Donetsk (photo Reuters)

The cease-fire was called on September 5, but, on October 1, four people were killed by a shell which landed on a school in Donetsk, and six died when a minibus was hit.

A spokesman for what the Ukrainian government calls its anti-terrorist operation said Ukrainian forces repelled four attacks on the airport on Wednesday evening.

A T-64 tank was destroyed and seven rebels were killed, Vladyslav Seleznyov told Kanal 5 TV.

The rebels used tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems, artillery and mortars, Vladyslav Seleznyov said, resuming their attacks on Thursday morning with small-arms fire.

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Seven Ukrainian troops are said to have died in a clash with pro-Russian rebels near Donetsk airport.

The attack is the deadliest single incident for the military since a truce deal.

A tank shell hit the vehicle carrying the troops, an official said.

Three civilians were reportedly killed in other incidents.

Ukrainian activists earlier toppled a statue of Lenin in the eastern city of Kharkiv – a move likely to be seen as a provocation by pro-Russians.

Nationalist protesters had gathered around the statue on Sunday night for a “Kharkiv is Ukraine” rally. The governor of Kharkiv region, Ihor Baluta, then signed an order to dismantle the statue.

The mayor of Kharkiv, Gennady Kernes, said on a local government website that the monument would be restored, calling its destruction unlawful.

Seven Ukrainian troops are said to have died in a clash with pro-Russian rebels near Donetsk airport

Seven Ukrainian troops are said to have died in a clash with pro-Russian rebels near Donetsk airport

Pro-Russian demonstrators defended the statue in February, as similar monuments were being taken down in other parts of the country in a wave of protests that accompanied the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych.

Kharkiv has largely escaped the violence which subsequently swept through east Ukraine’s other regions, Donetsk and Luhansk.

The latest deaths cast fresh doubt on a ceasefire agreed between the Ukrainian government and the rebels on September 5.

The seven soldiers were killed in a vehicle near Donetsk airport, which the rebels have been trying to capture from the Ukrainian military.

“During the evening attack, the Ukrainian armoured transporter, with its crew and a paratroop unit, took a direct hit from a tank,” Ukrainian military spokesman Col Andriy Lysenko told reporters.

He said a total of nine soldiers had been killed and 27 wounded in the past 24 hours.

Separately, authorities in Donetsk told AFP news agency that three civilians had been killed over the same period. The city is a base for the pro-Russian rebels.

The OSCE, which is monitoring the ceasefire, confirmed there had been heavy shelling around Donetsk airport.

For several days Russian state television has reported on “mass graves” allegedly unearthed by rebels near Nizhnya Krynka, a village near Donetsk. At least four bodies have been found there, according to the Russian reports.

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Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian rebels have signed a cease-fire deal to end almost five months of fighting.

The two sides, meeting in Belarusian capital Minsk, agreed to stop firing by 15:00 GMT. However, the rebels said the cease-fire had not changed their policy of advocating separation from Ukraine.

Meanwhile, NATO has agreed to form a multi-national “spearhead” force capable of deploying within 48 hours.

More than 2,600 people have died since rebels stormed several eastern cities.

The takeover prompted a military operation by Ukrainian forces to retake the cities.

The rebels, who had largely been pushed back towards their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, made new advances in recent days.

Fighting was continuing on Friday around Mariupol, a coastal city about 70 miles south of Donetsk.

Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian rebels have signed a cease-fire deal to end almost five months of fighting

Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian rebels have signed a cease-fire deal to end almost five months of fighting

Earlier in the day, rebels appeared to be hitting Ukrainian forces hard, and large plumes of smoke could be seen as Ukrainian forces fired back with artillery and jet fire.

The West accuses Russia of sending arms and troops to back the rebels in eastern Ukraine. But Russia denies the allegations.

The talks in Minsk were brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and involved a former Ukrainian president, leaders of the pro-Russian rebels, and a Russian delegate.

Both sides agreed to stop fighting, and the OSCE said it would monitor the ceasefire.

President Petro Poroshenko said the ceasefire was based on a 12-point peace plan that included the release of “hostages”, which he said would probably happen on Saturday.

“It is very important that this ceasefire lasts long, and during this ceasefire we continue the political dialogue to bring peace and stability,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had been told of the plan during a phone call, he added.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Russia’s actions in Ukraine had been a wake-up call for the alliance, and had spurred the formation of the rapid-reaction force.

He welcomed the cease-fire, saying he hoped it “could be the start of a constructive political process”.

Meanwhile, the EU and US are expected to announced enhanced sanctions on Russia, targeting banking, energy and defense sectors.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the sanctions would contain a proviso that they could be suspended if Russia co-operated.

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