MOSCOW — Ukrainian troops surrounded pro-Russia separatists in their main stronghold of Donetsk on Saturday, prompting the new leader of the militants to appeal for a cease-fire to avert what he said was a looming humanitarian catastrophe.
Alexander Zakharchenko, who on Thursday took over as prime minister of the insurgents’ self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk, said civilians had been killed during overnight shelling by Ukrainian government troops and that the toll would rise dramatically if the assault was not halted.
“We are ready for a cease-fire to prevent an increasing humanitarian catastrophe in Donetsk,” he said, according to Russian news reports. He said that water and electricity were scarce in the city, once home to a million people, and that food and medicine were also running out after fighting cut off supplies weeks ago.
Luhansk, the other eastern Ukraine city still marginally under the control of pro-Russia gunmen, has been direly short of water, and electrical service and communications have been severely affected for weeks. More than half of its 465,000 residents have fled, mostly across the border to Russia.
There was no immediate response from the government in Kiev to the insurgents’ call for a truce, but Ukrainian security officials said earlier Saturday that they had prevented armored Russian convoys from crossing into the separatist-held territory under the guise of a peacekeeping mission.
Valeriy Chaliy, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, said in Kiev that Russia had attempted to send forces into the east late Friday night.
“Bearing in mind numerous violations by the Russian Federation of the state border of Ukraine and continued illegal supply of weapons, armored vehicles and mercenaries from Russia, Ukraine has solid grounds for concern that the convoy may trigger further escalation,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Russia was attempting to provide military backing. “We have difficulty understanding what the Ukrainian side has in mind,” he said, according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
But Peskov said the intensifying humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine was causing the “deepest concern” in Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday to discuss the deteriorating situation in the separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine, with their offices providing starkly contrasting accounts of the conversation.
A senior State Department official said Kerry warned Lavrov against any attempts to send Russian personnel or assistance into Ukrainian territory without the consent and coordination of the Kiev government.
Kerry “conveyed that Russia should not intervene in Ukraine under the guise of humanitarian convoys or any other pretext of ‘peacekeeping,’” the official said.
A statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov had impressed on Kerry the urgency of providing aid to the encircled civilian communities to prevent “an impending human catastrophe.”
Lavrov also talked with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and informed him about Russia’s efforts to get humanitarian assistance to those remaining in the embattled eastern cities.
After British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama conferred, the British leader’s office issued a statement rejecting Russia’s attempts to come to the separatists’ aid.
“The prime minister and president are absolutely clear that such a so-called humanitarian mission would be unjustified and illegal. There are already a number of international aid agencies providing appropriate assistance on the ground in eastern Ukraine, and they urge Russia to desist from such a move,” the statement said.
Zakharchenko described a city under siege, saying food, water and electricity in Donetsk were in short supply. Convoys carrying medical aid were unable to access the city, he said, apparently referring to the Russian assistance stopped by Kiev’s forces at the border.
At least one person was killed and 18 wounded Saturday during shelling that hit about 30 apartment blocks, said Maxim Rovinsky, a spokesman for the Donetsk leadership. “The situation is getting worse with every hour,” he told the Associated Press.
Reports by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s special monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine indicated that conditions were deteriorating in the region.
In an update posted Saturday, the mission said that the railway station at Donetsk was still open, though train tickets to Kiev were not available for the next couple days. “At banks which were still operational, people were queuing at ATMs,” the OSCE said.
Shakhtarsk, a city east of Donetsk, appeared to be deserted. Shops were closed, and residents told the monitors that running water was available only two hours a day. Gas and electricity had been off since July 27.
Special correspondent Gorst reported from Moscow and Times staff writer Williams from Los Angeles.