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A man looks at debris and rubble on the outskirts of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, on July 25, 2014. / Igor Kovalenko, European Pressphoto Agency

DONETSK, Ukraine - Florists in this metropolis known as "The City of a Million Roses" aren't selling many flowers these days. Nor are the beauty salons grooming many customers. Gas stations are mostly shut. Hotel rooms gather dust.

Even a Saturday night social became a dud because the young men are manning guard posts rather than dancing.

The nearly 1 million residents in this stronghold of the pro-Russian separatist movement are increasingly on edge as they prepare for an assault by Ukrainian national forces to recapture the city from the rebels.

On Sunday, Ukrainian armed forces mounted a major offense in Horlivka, a key rebel stronghold about 20 miles north of Donetsk, in an attempt to gain control over the area where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down more than a week ago.

The armed forces "have increased assaults on territory held by pro-Russian mercenaries, destroyed checkpoints and positions and moved very close to Horlivka," Ukraine's National Security Council said. The separatist military command in Donetsk said rebel fighters were holding their positions.

Many residents had expected the Ukrainian offensive to begin sooner, but the downing of the commercial airliner delayed the coming battle.

During the day, few cars travel the city's main arteries, though public buses and trolleys remain packed, as people struggle to survive from day to day.

At night, Donetsk, an industrial city with steel mills and coal mines, turns into a ghost town under a curfew imposed by the separatist movement, the Donetsk People's Republic.

Most businesses, from cafes and bars to banks, are closed and others operate just a few hours a day. Companies have laid off employees or given them extended breaks.

Irina Alexeva counts herself lucky as one of the few who still has a job, as a cashier in a convenience store.

"My husband lost his job," she said. "Now I'm the only breadwinner here. I don't know how much longer this will continue."

The fighting touches her because she lives near the Donetsk airport, where separatists have clashed with government forces that control the runways.

"Being so close to the airport, we have experienced crossfire from both sides," she said.

Florist Valentina Mikhailovna says there's little interest in flowers these days.

"Recently, someone bought a bouquet for a colleague's birthday in a nearby shop," she said. "But besides that, there's not much going."

Anna Vasilevna says her beauty salon, one of the few still open, is also quiet.

"Today we had no customers, yesterday we had no customers," she said. "We hope for the situation to improve, but many have gone on holiday or have left the city."

A Western European shoe store and a clothing store on one of the main streets have yet to close.

"We are now open but who knows for how long," said Elizabeta Aleksandrovna, who works in the clothing shop. "We've reduced our prices, but still we have few customers come in on a daily basis."

"As long as there is peace in the city and it is not bombed, I'll try to get to work for as long as possible," she said. "I live in the city suburbs, and I am aware of the danger there. It is completely different to what it is here."

Aleksandrovna said her brother used to work for an advertising company but it was forced to close down.

"He took his family to Crimea. They are on holiday, resting, maybe for a month, but he'll probably look for a job there now."

On a recent Saturday night, in a bid to liven up the atmosphere in the city, Donetsk officials held an "acquaintance evening" for single soldiers and local young women in Lenin Square downtown. The vast majority who came were women. Most of the rebel forces are stationed at barricades to stop Ukrainian troops from entering the city center.

"Sorry to disappoint you folks, but our boys had a busy day and have to remain stationed at their posts," the evening's presenter told the audience.

Librarian Galina Lyakhova is worried about the fate of a culture trove she has lovingly tended for years. She's director of the library of the Center for Slavic Culture, which contains 80,000 books, some of them rare and valuable.

"It would devastate me if bombs destroyed this spiritual treasure," Lyakhova said.

Contributing: Tatyana Goryachova in Berdyansk, Ukraine; the Associated Press



Copyright 2014USA TODAY

Read the original story: Ukraine's separatist stronghold girds for key battle

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