Donetsk: Ukrainian officials said their forces advanced to the outskirts of a key town north of Donetsk on Saturday in hopes of retaking 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 US 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.
"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.
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.
A 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 60 kilometres 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 accident. Nine days after the accident, a full-fledged investigation still hasn`t started due to the security risks posed by the nearby fighting.
But Jerzy Dyczynski and Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski, parents of 25-year-old Fatima, crossed territory held by pro-Russian rebels to reach the wreckage-strewn fields outside the village of Hrabove to visit the place of their daughter`s death.
Fatima "was for peace. She will be forever for peace," her father said.
US and Ukrainian officials say the plane was shot down by a missile from rebel territory, most likely by mistake.
Two more cargo planes also flew 38 more coffins carrying victims to a forensic centre in the Netherlands for identification and investigation.