KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces pushed deeper into territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels Tuesday, fighting street battles in the besieged city of Luhansk and pressuring the outer defenses of Donetsk in a further blow to the separatists’ crumbling virtual state.
While continuing its offensive, the Ukrainian government said it saw a real chance for a peaceful settlement after an announcement that President Vladimir Putin of Russia would meet next Tuesday with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
“I come with positive news. I think we have a chance to switch to a real road map towards a peaceful process,” Valery Chaly, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, said at a news conference in Kiev.
Previous efforts toward a settlement, which included a meeting of foreign ministers last week in Berlin, have all failed, and even an agreement on when and how a Russian aid convoy could enter Ukraine has proved elusive. The convoy of more than 260 trucks remained stuck on the Russian side of the border, a week after it left Moscow. Ukrainian officials expressed bewilderment over why many of the Russian trucks appeared to be mostly empty if their only purpose was to deliver humanitarian aid.
Despite the repeated diplomatic setbacks, Chaly said the two countries’ presidents stood a better chance of a breakthrough that could bring an end to the war in eastern Ukraine. Talks have foundered on Russia’s refusal to halt or even acknowledge what Ukraine and its Western supporters say is a steady flow of fighters and military hardware into Ukraine from Russia.
“We all realize that these issues can only be solved at the highest level, at the level of president, especially in the case of Russia,” Chaly said.
On the ground, fighting raged unabated, with Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, asserting that Ukrainian forces had entered the town of Ilovaysk, about 11 miles east of Donetsk.
Ukrainian officials also reported fierce street battles in Luhansk, and said 15 bodies had been recovered from a refugee convoy that fled that city Monday and was then, according to Ukraine, attacked by rebels fighting to regain control of a strategic highway leading south to the Russian border. The rebels denied hitting a caravan of refugees.
The Defense Ministry in Kiev released a video of what it said were survivors of the attack describing how the convoy of vehicles had suddenly come under fire, despite flying white flags. But no photographs or video footage have emerged of the assault.
In Donetsk, which along with Luhansk forms the core of the separatists’ fast-shrinking domain, the rebels struggled to keep control of outlying districts. Emblematic of the tightening squeeze on the city, an artillery duel broke out Tuesday to the northeast, in Makiivka, as representatives of a rebel parliament were trying to deliver food to an orphanage for disabled preschool children, called the Special Child Center.
In the blighted industrial area, strewn with the pipes and smokestacks of an aging coking plant, rebels took up position near the orphanage and fired mortars, oblivious to the aid delivery mission. The Ukrainians then fired back.
None of the children were hurt, but in the ensuing shelling at least three people died and the neighborhood was whipped into a panic.
In the chaotic scene, women ran through the leafy courtyard clutching the hands of the children, residents emerged from apartments lugging hastily packed bags, and gunshots and explosions echoed among the apartment buildings. On a street called Fifty Years of the Soviet Union, a dead woman lay on the sidewalk.
“They just bombarded us,” said Stanislav Nosov, a teenager crouching in the stairway to a basement. “If they are shooting here, the battle for Donetsk has begun.”
But whether Ukraine’s final push into the city was really underway was unclear.
A rebel soldier said the Ukrainian army had not crossed a bridge over a canal that would indicate a ground assault on Donetsk, and that the din of explosions was in fact just a continuation of what in recent weeks has been a regular barrage into the city from Ukrainian positions outside.
The wounded were loaded into cars and ambulances and driven toward the center of town; after a time, the courtyard quieted and the yelling stopped.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has left at least 2,086 dead and more than 5,000 wounded, according to the United Nations.