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September 23, 2017

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Rebel-held Donetsk hit by air strike as gov't forces close in

DONETSK, Ukraine--A first air strike hit the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk in east Ukraine Wednesday, as government forces preparing to retake the city said 18 soldiers were killed in clashes with rebels.

Kiev denied that it was behind the strike, which caused no civilian casualties, according to local authorities.

Ukrainian forces have been making advances over the past months and have been tightening their grip around million-strong Donetsk, where pro-Russian fighters have hunkered down and pledged to fight to the death.

"The district of Kalininsky was hit overnight by an air strike ... there were no civilian victims," the city council said in a statement, adding that one bomb had left a four-meter (13-foot) wide and 1.5-meter deep hole in the road.

The site, located in a light industry area of warehouses, was seven kilometers (four miles) east of central Donetsk and the regional administration headquarters, held by the rebels.

An AFP reporter on the ground saw two large craters in the road and another across some railway tracks about 100 meters away, as well as a severely damaged warehouse and a three-storey office building with all its windows blown out and the roof peeled back.

The rebels said the strike occurred at 12:40am (2140 GMT).

Police and firefighters milled about as well as international OSCE observers who have been monitoring the situation in Ukraine and were taking pictures of the scene, accompanied by a few rebels.

An above-ground gas pipe was down and the city council said that engineers were working on another unexploded bomb.

This was the first air strike to hit close to the centre of Donetsk since Ukrainian forces heavily bombarded the airport in May in their bid to halt the insurgency in the industrial east of the country.

Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Kiev's National Security and Defense Council, insisted Wednesday that Ukraine's military did not bomb built-up areas.

But the strike came as Kiev signaled a harder push to retake the disputed area.

On Wednesday, the spokesman for the Ukrainian operation in the east, Oleksiy Dmitrashkivsky, told AFP: "The noose is tightening around Donetsk, Lugansk and Gorlivka," the main rebel strongholds.

"Our forces are regrouping, maneuvering and engineers are strengthening the fortification of roadblocks, preparing for the liberation of these cities," he added.

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