Ukraine launches offensive to retake Donetsk

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Jerzy Dyczynski and Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski
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Ukraine launches offensive to retake Donetsk
A police officer stands guard as a woman walks past pieces of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the village of Petropavlivka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Pro-Russian fighters ride a airborne self-propelled artillery gun Nona in downtown Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Thursday, July 24, 2014. While the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 last week riveted international attention on the Ukraine conflict, locals have been struggling for months with spiraling violence. The Ukrainian military, buoyed after the fall of rebel stronghold Slovyansk this month, is now trying to encircle Donetsk and cut off any supply routes from Russia. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Dutch investigators examine pieces of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the village of Rassipne, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
A Dutch investigator examines the site of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the village of Rassipne, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Jerzy Dyczynski and Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski whose daughter, 25-year-old Fatima, was a passenger on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, sit on part of the wreckage of the crashed aircraft in Hrabove, Ukraine, Saturday, July 26, 2014. The couple who live in Perth, Australia, crossed territory held by pro-Russian rebels to reach the wreckage-strewn farm fields outside the village of Hrabove. They last spoke to Fatima shortly before she boarded the flight for Kuala Lumpur in Amsterdam on July 17. Rudhart-Dyczynski said, "We have promised our daughter we will come here." (AP Photo/Nicholas Garriga)
Jerzy Dyczynski and Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski whose daughter, 25-year-old Fatima, was a passenger on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, look over the wreckage of the crashed aircraft in Hrabove, Ukraine, Saturday, July 26, 2014. The couple who live in Perth, Australia, crossed territory held by pro-Russian rebels to reach the wreckage-strewn farm fields outside the village of Hrabove. They last spoke to Fatima shortly before she boarded the flight for Kuala Lumpur in Amsterdam on July 17. Rudhart-Dyczynski said, "We have promised our daughter we will come here." (AP Photo/Nicholas Garriga)
Jerzy Dyczynski and Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski whose daughter, 25-year-old Fatima, was a passenger on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, sit on part of the wreckage of the crashed aircraft in Hrabove, Ukraine, Saturday, July 26, 2014. The couple who live in Perth, Australia, crossed territory held by pro-Russian rebels to reach the wreckage-strewn farm fields outside the village of Hrabove. They last spoke to Fatima shortly before she boarded the flight for Kuala Lumpur in Amsterdam on July 17. Rudhart-Dyczynski said, "We have promised our daughter we will come here." (AP Photo/Nicholas Garriga)
Donetsk People's Republic fighters ride their tank in Snizhne, 100 kilometers east of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Thursday, July 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Dutch and Australian investigators along with members of the OSCE mission in Ukraine examine pieces of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the village of Petropavlivka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Cows feed next to a piece of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
In this photo taken on Wednesday, July 23, 2014, a man walks his child past the shoes of a civilian fatality, victim of a Ukrainian army shelling, two days ago, in Donetsk, Ukraine. Five civilians were killed and 12 injured in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels on Monday, according to the mayor’s office. Residents in the rebel-held city are blaming Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has promised to stamp out the uprising in the eastern part of the country. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A piece of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 lies in the village of Petropavlivka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Independent military analysts said Wednesday that the size, spread, shape and number of shrapnel impacts visible in an AP photograph of a piece of the wreckage all point to a missile system like the SA-11 Buk. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Malaysian investigators along with members of the OSCE mission in Ukraine, examine a piece of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the village of Petropavlivka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. The crash site, in territory held by the pro-Russian separatists accused by the Ukrainian government of shooting the plane down with a missile, remained unsecured five days after the disaster _ another source of frustration among foreign governments concerned about establishing the facts. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Malaysian investigators along with members of the OSCE mission in Ukraine examine the site of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the village of Petropavlivka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Six days after the Boeing 777 was shot down over the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, the first bodies finally arrived in the Netherlands, the country that bore the heaviest toll in the crash that killed all 298 passengers and crew. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
A pro-Russian rebel looks up while ridding on a tank flying Russia's flag, on a road east of Donetsk, Monday, July 21, 2014. Another 21 bodies have been found in the sprawling fields of east Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed last week, killing all 298 people aboard. International indignation over the incident has grown as investigators still only have limited access to the crash site and it remains unclear when and where the victims' bodies will be transported. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian Emergency workers carry a victim's body in a plastic bag at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine Monday, July 21, 2014. Another 21 bodies have been found in the sprawling fields of east Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed last week, killing all 298 people aboard. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
A pro-Russian fighter holds up a toy found among the debris at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines jet near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Friday, July 18, 2014. Emergency workers, police officers and even off-duty coal miners spread out Friday across the sunflower fields and villages of eastern Ukraine, searching the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines jet shot down as it flew high above the country, killing all aboard. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
A pro-Russian fighter speaks to representatives from the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Friday, July 18, 2014. Representatives from OSCE and four Ukrainian experts have traveled into rebel-controlled areas to begin an investigation into the attack that downed the plane, killing all those aboard. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Pro-Russian fighters stop a convoy of representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines jet near the village of Hrabove, Friday, July 18, 2014. Representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and four Ukrainian experts had traveled into rebel-controlled areas to begin an investigation into the attack that killed 298 people from nearly a dozen nations. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
A Donetsk People's Republic fighter throw a bottle of water to colleagues as they arrive at gas station to fill their tank with fuel in Snizhne, 100 kilometers east of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Thursday, July 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, center, greets a soldier during inspection of a Ukrainian Army position outside the eastern town of Slovyansk, Ukraine, Wednesday, July 16, 2014. Yatsenyuk hopes to restore the infrastructure in Donetsk and Lugansk regions from state budget, thanks to private investors and international aid, he said during his visit to the Slovyansk on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko, Pool)
Pro-Russian leader, former Ukrainian lawmaker Oleg Tsarev, walks accompanied by pro-Russian fighters to take part in a pro-Russian meeting in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Sunday, July 13, 2014. Pro-Russian insurgents last week retreated from the strategic city of Slovyansk and holed up in Donetsk, a city of one million, and potentially the final frontier for the rebels. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Ukrainian Army multiple rocket launchers "Grad" (means "hail") in position in a field of sunflowers outside the city of Siversk, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, July 12, 2014. Pro-Russian insurgents last week retreated from the strategic city of Slovyansk and holed up in Donetsk, a city of one million, and potentially the final frontier for the rebels. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
Dogs sit near a Ukrainian State emblem in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine Monday, July 7, 2014. Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko has called the capture of the Pro-Russian separatist stronghold of Slovyansk a "turning point" in the fight for control of the country's east. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
A dog walks through the central square in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine Monday, July 7, 2014, with the Ukrainian State emblem leaning against a statue of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin. Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko has called the capture of the Pro-Russian separatist stronghold of Slovyansk a "turning point" in the fight for control of the country's east. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
People listen to Pavel Gubarev, self-proclaimed people's governor, during a pro-Russian meeting in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Sunday, July 6, 2014. More than a thousand people rallied on Donetsk's central Lenin square on Sunday afternoon in support of the pro-Russian rebellion after an important defeat yesterday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
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By AYSE WIETING and DAVID McHUGH

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) - Ukrainian officials said their forces advanced to the outskirts of a key town north of Donetsk on Saturday as they try to retake the stronghold held for months by pro-Russia rebels.

The move comes as Ukrainian forces appear to have gained some momentum recently by retaking control of territory from the rebels. But Russia also appears to becoming more involved in the fighting, with the U.S. and Ukraine accusing Moscow of moving heavily artillery across the border to the rebels.

Ukrainian national security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Ukrainian forces were outside Horlikva, just north of the regional center of Donetsk.

Once they can take Horlivka, "the direct route is open for the forces of the anti-terrorist operation to the capital of the Donbass region - the city of Donetsk," Lysenko said. "The approaches to Donetsk are being blocked so that the terrorists do not get the chance to receive ammunition, reinforcements or equipment."

Donetsk, a city of about 1 million people, is a major center of the separatist uprising that has battled Ukrainian government forces for five months.

An Associated Press reporter found the highway north of Donetsk blocked by rebels and heard the sound of artillery to the north. Explosions were heard in the direction of the town's airport, on the northwest edge of the city, an area frequently contested by Ukrainian forces and rebels. Black smoke rose from the direction of Yakovlikva, a northern suburb of Donetsk.

About 35 miles (60 kilometers) to the east, the site where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down was still eerily empty except for the parents of one of the 298 people killed in the July 17 disaster. A full-fledged investigation still hasn't started because of the security risks posed by the nearby fighting.

But Jerzy Dyczynski and Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski, parents of 25-year-old Fatima, travelled from their home in Perth, Australia to honor their daughter. They crossed territory held by pro-Russian rebels to reach the wreckage-strewn fields outside the village of Hrabove, where they sat together on part of the debris, his arm around her shoulder.

Fatima "was for peace. She will be forever for peace," her father said.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials say the plane was shot down by a missile from rebel territory, most likely by mistake.

Two military cargo planes, one Dutch and the other Australian, also flew 38 more coffins carrying victims to the Netherlands for identification and investigation.

Later, the Dutch government said the first formal identification of a victim had taken place. The name and sex of the victim, a Dutch national, were not released.

The planes took off Saturday from Kharkiv, a government-controlled city where the bodies have been brought from the wreckage site in territory held by pro-Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian government. They landed later in the afternoon in Eindhoven, where the coffins were transferred to a fleet of hearses in a solemn ceremony.

Officials said the flights took the last of the 227 coffins containing victims that had been brought to Kharkiv by refrigerated train. Officials say the exact number of people held in the coffins is still to be determined by forensic experts in the Netherlands, where Ukraine agreed to send the bodies. International observers have said there are still remains at the wreckage site. Access has been limited due to rebel interference and security concerns.

The disaster sparked hopes in the West that Russia would scale back its involvement in the uprising in Ukraine's east, but nine days later the opposite seems to be the case.

Russia launched artillery attacks from its soil into Ukraine on Friday, while the United States said it has seen powerful rocket systems moving closer to the Ukraine border.

Those accusations sparked a strong denial from Moscow, which accuses the U.S. of a smear campaign.

The Russian Foreign Ministry accused the United States on Saturday of conducting "an unrelenting campaign of slander against Russia, ever more relying on open lies."

The ministry took particular issue with comments Friday by White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who said Washington regards Moscow as involved in the shooting down of the airliner because it allegedly has supplied missile systems to the rebels and trained them on how to use them.

The ministry complained that these allegations have not been backed up with public evidence and it sneered at Earnest for saying they are supported by claims on social media.

"In other words, the Washington regime is basing its contentions on anti-Russian speculation gathered from the Internet that does not correspond to reality," it said.

Russia also lashed out at the latest round of Ukraine-related sanctions imposed by the European Union, saying they endanger the fight against international terrorism.

The EU sanctions, announced on Friday, impose travel bans and asset freezes on 15 people, including the head of Russia's Federal Security Service and the head of the agency's department overseeing international operations and intelligence. Four members of Russia's national security council are also on the list.

The Foreign Ministry said the sanctions show the EU is taking "a complete turn away from joint work with Russia on international and regional security, including the fight against the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism (and) organized crime."

"We are sure the decisions will be greeted enthusiastically by international terrorists," the ministry said.

Meanwhile, CNN reported that a Ukrainian freelancer who had been detained by separatists was freed on Saturday. The journalist, Anton Skiba, was seized Tuesday in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk when he and other members of a TV crew returned to a hotel after working at the site of the downed Malaysian airliner.

A day earlier, the anti-Kremlin newspaper Novaya Gazeta ran a full front-page photo of a cortege of hearses with the headline in Dutch and Russian saying: "Forgive us, Holland."

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