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23 killed over past 2 days

Shelling in at least three cities in eastern Ukraine has hit a home for the elderly, a school and multiple homes, adding to a rapidly growing civilian death toll Tuesday.

The use of unguided rockets in fighting between government troops and pro-Russian separatist rebels has been causing a notable increase in casualties in recent days and drawn criticism from the U.N. and rights groups.

And with turmoil raging across a swathe of Ukraine's troubled east, international investigators were again prevented Tuesday from visiting the site of the Malaysia Airlines jet shot down earlier this month.

At least one person was killed when several shells hit an apartment block in early in the afternoon in the centre of the main separatist rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

The government has refrained to date from attacks on the centre of Donetsk and direct strikes on the city may mark an escalation in efforts to break the rebels' resolve there.

An Associated Press reporter on the scene saw gaping holes in the side of a nine-story apartment block after it was fired on. Around 50 people took refuge in a nearby underground car park and the area was heavy with the smell of household gas.

An international observer team was taking photos of another nearby building that was also struck by rocket fire.

City hall in Luhansk, which is also controlled by separatist rebels, said that five people were killed Monday when a home for the elderly was struck by artillery fire. Russian television showed images of bodies in wheelchairs covered with blankets.

Ukraine security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that rebels had blocked the railroad out of Luhansk, barring residents from leaving the city.

"If we were earlier able to organize additional trains to and from Luhansk, to Kyiv, now they have completely blocked the railway line," Lysenko said.

Lysenko also accused separatist fighters of using children as human shields and stopping cars from leaving Luhansk. It was not immediately possible to confirm those claims.

In Horlivka, a city besieged by government troops, the mayor's office reported Tuesday that 17 people, including three children, were killed as a result of shelling.

The mayor's office said there has been major damage to many homes and government offices in the centre of the city. It also said the top floor of a school was destroyed as a result of direct hit from a shell.

Rebels accuse the government of indiscriminately using heavy artillery against residential neighbourhoods in areas under their control.

A U.N. monitoring mission in Ukraine says there has been an alarming buildup of heavy weaponry in civilian areas of Donetsk and Luhansk — including artillery, tanks, rockets and missiles that are being used to inflict increasing casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.

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