DONETSK, Ukraine -- At least 500 people have held a rare antiwar protest in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, Ukraine, calling on separatists to remove rocket launchers from residential neighborhoods where they provoke fire from government troops.
The June 15 rally outside the offices of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) seemed to reflect frustration with the separatist authorities, as well as fear and fatigue over a conflict that has killed thousands of civilians since it erupted in April 2014.
Voicing an array of demands ranging from peace to pension payments, protesters said rocket launchers fired by rebel forces from the city put the lives of its residents at risk of shelling by Ukrainian government forces. Some accused the rebels of using civilians as human shields.
"You are hiding behind our backs," the news agency AFP quoted residents as shouting. Others chanted "Shame!" and "Stop the War!" or criticized the separatist leadership.
The protesters, including many elderly women, were mainly from neighborhoods close to the ruined Donetsk airport.
More than 6,400 people have been killed in the conflict between government forces and Russian-backed separatists who hold parts of eastern Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Fighting continues despite Minsk II, a European-brokered cease-fire and peace deal signed in February.
The protesters, including many elderly women, were mainly from neighborhoods close to the ruined Donetsk airport, which rebel forces took control of in January after months of heavy fighting. Many called for the separatist leadership to provide them with housing further from the front lines.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's monitoring mission reported numerous cease-fire violations near the airport over the weekend.
It said observers based at the central railway station in Donetsk recorded nearly 600 explosions caused by incoming and outgoing artillery or mortar fire over two days, in addition to small-arms fire.
Some of the protesters urged the separatists to launch a big offensive against government forces in order to drive them further from Donetsk, which the rebels say frequently comes under fire.
Donetsk separatist leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko met with the protesters and told them, "I cannot stop the war."
Zakharchenko arrived at the scene on crutches, saying he had recently been wounded, and under the protection of numerous bodyguards.
He blamed Kyiv for the most recent hostilities and for the protest itself, claiming: "This rally was organized by the Ukrainian leadership."
He said the protesters had "raised pressing issues," but there were no reports of a promise to stop firing from residential areas.
With reporting by AFP, Interfax, Novaya Gazeta, and The New York Times