Shelling moves closer to Ukrainian port

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BY PETER LEONARD

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Shelling moves closer to Ukrainian port
A soldier's boot lies near a destroyed Ukrainian army tank near the village of Lebedynske, on the highway joining Mariupol and Novoazovsk, Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. After four months of war, eastern Ukraine begins the first full day of an uncertain cease-fire. The truce agreement calls for an exchange of prisoners and establishment of humanitarian corridors, but how quickly those actions will begin is unclear. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A destroyed kindergarten building is seen in the village of Kominternove , Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. After four months of war, eastern Ukraine begins the first full day of an uncertain cease-fire. The truce agreement calls for an exchange of prisoners and establishment of humanitarian corridors, but how quickly those actions will begin is unclear. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A burned Ukrainian army tank is seen near a destroyed kindergarten in the village of Kominternove, Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. After four months of war, eastern Ukraine begins the first full day of an uncertain cease-fire. The truce agreement calls for an exchange of prisoners and establishment of humanitarian corridors, but how quickly those actions will begin is unclear. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
An abandoned Ukrainian army tank is seen in the village of Kominternove , Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. After four months of war, eastern Ukraine begins the first full day of an uncertain cease-fire. The truce agreement calls for an exchange of prisoners and establishment of humanitarian corridors, but how quickly those actions will begin is unclear. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A destroyed Ukrainian army tank is seen near the village of Lebedynske, on the highway joining Mariupol and Novoazovsk, Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. After four months of war, eastern Ukraine begins the first full day of an uncertain cease-fire. The truce agreement calls for an exchange of prisoners and establishment of humanitarian corridors, but how quickly those actions will begin is unclear.(AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A man looks at a destroyed Ukrainian army tank near the village of Lebedynske, on the highway joining Mariupol and Novoazovsk, Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. After four months of war, eastern Ukraine begins the first full day of an uncertain cease-fire. The truce agreement calls for an exchange of prisoners and establishment of humanitarian corridors, but how quickly those actions will begin is unclear. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk, and Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, left, speak to the media after talks on cease-fire in Ukraine in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebels have signed a cease-fire deal that starts in less than two hours, a European official at the talks said Friday. (AP Photo)
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, flanked by Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk, and Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov, right, speaks to the media after talks on cease-fire in Ukraine in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebels have signed a cease-fire deal that starts in less than two hours, a European official at the talks said Friday. (AP Photo)
Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk, attends talks on cease-fire in Ukraine in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. Talks expected to bring a much-anticipated cease-fire to the fighting in eastern Ukraine began Friday in the Belarusian capital even as the rebels kept pressing their offensive against a strategic port city. (AP Photo)
Alexander Zakharchenko, left, the leader of pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk, and Andrei Purgin, the leader of pro-Russian rebels in Luhansk, attend talks on cease-fire in Ukraine in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. Talks expected to bring a much-anticipated cease-fire to the fighting in eastern Ukraine began Friday in the Belarusian capital even as the rebels kept pressing their offensive against a strategic port city. (AP Photo)
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, right, attends talks on a cease-fire in Ukraine in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. Talks expected to bring a much-anticipated cease-fire to the fighting in eastern Ukraine began Friday in the Belarusian capital even as the rebels kept pressing their offensive against a strategic port city. (AP Photo)
Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov arrives for talks on a cease-fire in Ukraine in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. Talks expected to bring a much-anticipated cease-fire to the fighting in eastern Ukraine began Friday in the Belarusian capital even as the rebels kept pressing their offensive against a strategic port city. (AP Photo)
A volunteer of the Ukrainian paramilitary Azov battalion waits on an armoured vehicle, as pro-Russian separatists fire heavy artillery, on the outskirts of the key southeastern port city of Mariupol, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteer of the Ukrainian paramilitary Azov battalion wait on an armoured vehicle, as pro-Russian separatists fire heavy artillery, on the outskirts of the key southeastern port city of Mariupol, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. The inscription on the Ukrainian flag (L) reads 'Defence of the city'. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
A volunteer of the Ukrainian paramilitary Azov battalion makes a victory sign while waiting on an armoured vehicle, as pro-Russian separatists fire heavy artillery, on the outskirts of the key southeastern port city of Mariupol, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian army soldiers wait to go to the front line on an armoured vehicle as pro-Russian separatists fire heavy artillery, on the outskirts of the key southeastern port city of Mariupol, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian army soldiers go to the front line on an armoured vehicle as pro-Russian separatists fire heavy artillery, on the outskirts of the key southeastern port city of Mariupol, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian army soldiers wait to go to the front line on an armoured vehicle as pro-Russian separatists fire heavy artillery, on the outskirts of the key southeastern port city of Mariupol, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian army soldiers go to the front line on an armoured vehicle as pro-Russian separatists fire heavy artillery, on the outskirts of the key southeastern port city of Mariupol, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian army soldiers go to the front line on an armoured vehicle as pro-Russian separatists fire heavy artillery, on the outskirts of the key southeastern port city of Mariupol, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, center, arrives for talks on a cease-fire in Ukraine in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. Talks expected to bring a much-anticipated cease-fire to the fighting in eastern Ukraine began Friday in the Belarusian capital even as the rebels kept pressing their offensive against a strategic port city. (AP Photo)
Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, right, arrives for talks on a cease-fire in Ukraine in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. Talks expected to bring a much-anticipated cease-fire to the fighting in eastern Ukraine began Friday in the Belarusian capital even as the rebels kept pressing their offensive against a strategic port city. (AP Photo)
A destroyed Ukrainian army tank is seen near the village of Lebedynske, on the highway joining Mariupol and Novoazovsk, Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. After four months of war, eastern Ukraine begins the first full day of an uncertain cease-fire. The truce agreement calls for an exchange of prisoners and establishment of humanitarian corridors, but how quickly those actions will begin is unclear. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A soldier of the Ukrainian army sits on a tank in the port city of Mariupol, southeastern Ukraine, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. The Ukrainian president declared a cease-fire Friday to end nearly five months of fighting in the nation's east after his representatives reached a deal with the Russian-backed rebels at peace talks in Minsk. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Lorries, part of a Russian humanitarian convoy, cross the Ukrainian border at the Donets'k-Izvarino custom control checkpoint as Ukrainian refugees look at them on September 13, 2014. The first 35 vehicles in a second Russian aid convoy heading for rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine have crossed the border, Russian news agencies reported. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI VENYAVSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI VENYAVSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Lorries, part of a Russian humanitarian convoy, cross the Ukrainian border at the Donets'k-Izvarino custom control checkpoint as Ukrainian refugees look at them on September 13, 2014. The first 35 vehicles in a second Russian aid convoy heading for rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine have crossed the border, Russian news agencies reported. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI VENYAVSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI VENYAVSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
ZAPORIZHIA, UKRAINE - SEPTEMBER 12: Thousands of Ukrainians gather to attend 'Peace March' demanding peace in Eastern Ukraine and supporting Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko's plan for peace, in Zaporizhia, Ukraine on September 12, 2104. (Photo by Maksim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ZAPORIZHIA, UKRAINE - SEPTEMBER 12: Thousands of Ukrainians gather to attend 'Peace March' demanding peace in Eastern Ukraine and supporting Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko's plan for peace, in Zaporizhia, Ukraine on September 12, 2104. (Photo by Maksim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIEV, UKRAINE - SEPTEMBER 12: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (2nd L) meets with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (2nd R) and European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fule (3rd R) in Kiev, Ukraine, on September 12, 2014. Barroso and Fule are in Kiev to attend the 11th Yalta European Strategy Annual Meeting taking place between September 11 and 13. (Photo by Bahadir Vanli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ZAPORIZHIA, UKRAINE - SEPTEMBER 12: Thousands of Ukrainians gather to attend 'Peace March' demanding peace in Eastern Ukraine and supporting Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko's plan for peace, in Zaporizhia, Ukraine on September 12, 2104. (Photo by Maksim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) -- Shelling resounded on the outskirts of a Ukrainian port city Friday as Russian-backed rebels pressed their offensive in the strategically key southeast just hours ahead of talks that are widely hoped to bring a cease-fire.

Associated Press reporters heard heavy shelling on Friday morning north and east of Mariupol. The strategic city of about 500,000 lies along the Sea of Azov, between Russia to the east and the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula to the west.

The sound of incoming and outgoing shelling from different directions appeared to indicate that rebels have partially surrounded the area and are probing its defenses. The onslaught could be intended to raise the pressure on the Ukrainian government ahead of peace talks in Minsk, Belarus, which are expected to lead to a cease-fire.

Seizure of Mariupol would give the rebels a strong foothold and raise the threat of the rebels carving a land corridor between Russia and Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in March. If that happens, Ukraine would lose another chunk of sea coast and access to rich hydrocarbon resources the Sea of Azov is believed to hold.

The rebel offensive follows two weeks of rebel gains that turned the tide of the war against Ukrainian forces, who until recently had appeared close to crushing the five-month rebellion in the east.

Ukraine and the West say the rebel counterattack was spearheaded by regular Russian army units, a charge the Kremlin has denied.

Representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are to meet later Friday in Minsk for talks on ending the conflict. Both Ukraine's president and rebel leaders say they are prepared for a cease-fire if the talks succeed.

On Thursday, President Petro Poroshenko said while attending a NATO summit in Wales that he was ready to order a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine if a deal is signed. The rebels said they were ready to declare a truce if agreement can be reached on a political settlement for the mostly Russian-speaking region.

As head of state, Poroshenko said he is "ready to do my best to stop the war," and he voiced "careful optimism" about the meeting. Earlier this week, he discussed the outlines of a peace deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also expressed optimism about the chances of reaching agreement.

For all the upbeat assessments, however, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was skeptical of Russian motives. "What counts is what is actually happening on the ground, so it remains to be seen what it is, and I have to say that previously we have seen similar statements and initiatives and they have been a smoke screen for continued Russian destabilization of the situation in Ukraine," he said.

Since mid-April, Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting government troops in a conflict the U.N. estimates has killed nearly 2,600 people. On Thursday, a NATO military officer told The Associated Press the ranks of Russian soldiers directly involved in the conflict have grown.

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