An NBC News crew heading travelling in eastern Ukraine got a firsthand taste Tuesday of how commonplace the violence rocking the region has become.
The team passed a checkpoint manned by about five Ukrainian soldiers and drove off towards another one controlled by pro-Moscow rebels. As they waited in a line of around 50 vehicles, five or more shells landed on the brow of the hill behind them – the site of the checkpoint they had just left.
“We could hear it go ‘boom, boom, boom, boom, boom’,” NBC News Foreign Correspondent Keir Simmons said. “[We saw] smoke from five positions on across the hill.”
Some of those waiting in the road set in the middle of sunflower fields appeared to panic, backing out of the line and speeding away, he said.
“Others treated it as if it were an everyday occurrence, just sat in line waiting to get through the checkpoint,” Simmons said. “It was kind of an interesting combination of the everyday battle that is playing out at the moment. [Almost] everyone was so relaxed and then munitions land on the road we just passed and nobody bats an eyelid.”
More than 2,290 people have died since pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted by protesters calling for closer ties with the West in February. Since then, separatist forces have been besieging much of the east of the country and the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia. Ukraine has accused Russia of bringing tanks, artillery and troops to support separatists in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow denies.
Earlier on Tuesday, Russia distanced itself from reports Vladimir Putin said he could capture Ukraine's capital in two weeks if he wanted, claiming the comments had been taken out of context.