Kurakhove (Ukraine) (AFP) - For a few hours at least, the road leading west from the besieged rebel stronghold of Donetsk was meant to provide a sliver of security for desperate residents trying to flee the ever-encroaching fighting in east Ukraine.
But a mortar blast just yards from the road and the booms of fierce clashes between government troops and insurgent fighters in a town along the route showed that even this "humanitarian corridor" announced by Kiev on Monday was hardly safe.
Time was running out for Donetsk residents wanting to escape a brutal standoff between the rebels and the Ukrainians closing on the city.
Yet vehicles numbered only in the dozens, with most Donetsk residents seemingly reluctant to brave the route which -- as with two others out of other blockaded rebel cities -- had a supposed safe buffer of at least 200 metres (650 feet) on each side of it.
Insurgents at several checkpoints on the way out of the city stressed that people were free to leave.
"We are not preventing anyone. Everyone leaves freely. They go every day," said the fighter in charge of one checkpoint.
The once-busy multi-lane highway went past the entrance to Shakhtar Donetsk football team's former training base and through fields of sunflowers.
But it also came within a few hundred metres of Maryinka, a small town outside Donetsk, where Ukrainian troops arrived Monday and fighting was still raging.
- Soliders man checkpoints -
At the first Ukraine-controlled checkpoint, soldiers checked the documents of every vehicle and sometimes their loads.
Sitting in a taxi, a mustachioed man clutched a bucket of eggs on his lap while an elderly woman tearfully said: "We are trying to leave."
Asked where they were heading, she just replied: "Wherever we can get to."
Pushchairs were piled on the roof of another car, while white cloths hung from the wing mirrors of a truck -- as Ukrainian authorities requested from those planning to use the corridor between 10 am and 2 pm.
"People are going through from Donetsk. Approximately 90 percent are from the Donetsk region," said a Ukrainian officer.
The checkpoint was at an exposed spot where two huge pylons were bent double by explosions in recent months.
Tanks and armoured personnel carriers stood at the edge of sunflower fields and a group of off-duty Ukrainian soldiers were clustered nearby.
Unsmiling and deeply tanned, some smoked, while most wore stripy army vests. Only one could be seen wearing body armour. Another had a crucifix on a necklace of white beads on his bare chest.
Nearby, there were also deep pits to store ammunition and trenches for the men.
An officer in charge told AFP that there had been mortar fire the evening before, pointing out craters in the soil. He said the men had time to run and hide after the first explosion and none was injured.
- An empty refugee camp -
Waved through, an AFP team saw two blackened apartment buildings, a five-storey and a three-storey one, gutted by fire on the edge of Maryinka, across the fields.
Smoke rose from beyond them in the small town. Then artillery fire rang out and a larger burst of smoke puffed up.
In the next village of Kurakhove, the Ukrainian emergency ministry had set up a refugee camp with well-appointed canvas tents with wooden plank floors and even working showers. But it was absolutely empty.
Turning back towards Donetsk as time on the humanitarian corridor was running out, the AFP team's car passed the same Ukrainian checkpoint and a shell landed with an explosion in the field just tens of metres (yards) from the road.
As rebels in black skull-and-crossbones T-shirts let through cars from the corridor back into Donetsk however, one assured the passengers: "We don't fire here."