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Deadly Clashes Rage In East Ukraine

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Ukrainian military officials say they're facing an intense assault from Russian-backed separatist in eastern Ukraine. They say they're fighting back along the whole length of a frontline that stretches over two eastern provinces where the separatists have declared independence. Attempts to negotiate a halt to the fighting have failed so far. Civilians are being killed on both sides, often by random shell fire that hits without warning. NPR's Corey Flintoff has been in the region this week. Corey, where are you right now and what are you seeing?

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Arun, I'm in a town called Svyatogorsk, which has become a refuge for many of these people who have been evacuated from the frontline towns. We're a good distance from the fighting here, but it's beginning to feel as if this area could be engulfed again fairly soon. In some towns that are closer to the fighting, we heard shell fire and machine guns last night. But we think that that was the Ukrainian army testing its guns and getting ready for the offensive to come in this direction.

RATH: We know this is taking a terrible toll on civilians. What are you seeing in the refugee areas?

FLINTOFF: We've met people who have gotten out of some of the most dangerous areas, and many of them have absolutely terrifying stories to tell. Volunteer bus drivers have been going into the town of Debaltseve rescuing people who have been taking shelter in their basements. And these people have been living without heat or running water for 10 days in the middle of a terrible bombardment. The police chief there says a dozen civilians were killed in the town yesterday, although we haven't been able to verify that. The Ukrainian defense minister says at least 15 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the past day or so.

RATH: When you meet these refugees, what are they telling you about what's happening to them?

FLINTOFF: I think a lot of these people have been in situations where they really believe that they could die at any moment. And they've been facing that fear for days. A lot of people seem stunned and disoriented when they came out. They haven't been able to start thinking about what lies ahead.

We also met some people who have gotten out of places where the conditions weren't so dire - at least not yet. We ran into a couple of families at a bus station. And each of them, including the children, had bundles of just whatever they were able to carry. And they told us that they were headed to Rostov in Russia because they have family members there. One lady was carrying a ginger-colored cat in her arms and it was clear that that cat was going anywhere that she went.

RATH: Corey, so many wounded in this latest fighting. Are they able to get medical care?

FLINTOFF: We were just at a hospital yesterday, and we saw about half a dozen Ukrainian soldiers and national guard troops brought in. They're carried in in ambulances that are basically just converted minibuses. We saw soldiers brought in with shrapnel wounds, several with head wounds, wounds to the hands and lower legs. One young officer I talked to said that he was stunned by a mortar shell and then hit in the leg by something else. He was waiting to find out if it was a bullet or shrapnel.

And even before the war, medical care here just wasn't up to what we think of as American or European standards. You know, the medics and doctors we saw seemed quite competent and dedicated, but they say they're very short of necessary drugs and equipment. One medic told us that they have an outdated type of x-ray film and that they needed something better. And more ominously, one of the doctors there said they have a plan for evacuating the hospital and everyone in it if the need arises.

RATH: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff. Corey, thanks very much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.