MARIUPOL, Ukraine, Jan. 24 (UPI) -- Rebels in eastern Ukraine have gone on the offensive against Mariupol, a strategic town between Donetsk and Crimea, the latest thrust in a recent series of assaults by pro-Russian separatists.
"Today an offensive was launched on Mariupol," rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said at a memorial Saturday, according to the BBC. "This will be the best possible monument to all our dead."
Mariupol is a government-held strategic port town between areas controlled by rebels in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which was annexed by Russian forces last year.
Video from multiple sources shows buildings and cars ablaze in the offensive's wake. Rebel spokesman Eduard Basurin reported 24 killed and 30 wounded among rebel ranks, saying it represented the group's heaviest loss in a 24-hour period.
Basurin earlier Saturday had denied the rebels were responsible for a rocket attack in the city that killed up to 27 people.
Zakharchenko rejected the idea of future peace talks Friday, a day after rebel forces took a strategic airport in the city of Donetsk following weeks of fighting. The Ukrainian government and rebel forces blamed each other for a mortar attack in the same city that killed over a dozen people on a trolley.
With a population of around 500,000, Mariupol last saw heavy fighting in Aug. 2014, before a tenuous cease-fire took hold in September. While the cease-fire did reduce levels of fighting, it was never fully obeyed.
The Kiev government and Western powers have blamed Russia for sending up to 9,000 troops along with tanks, artillery and aircraft to assist rebels in eastern Ukraine, but Moscow denied the allegation, characterizing such forces as Russian "volunteers."
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that "criminal orders" by Ukrainian leaders are to blame for the conflict in the country's east, which according to the United Nations has resulted in over 5,000 deaths since April 2014.