Ukrainian forces battled pro-Russian separatists at Donetsk’s international airport on Monday as the newly elected President vowed to put down the rebellion in the east of the country.
Petro Poroshenko said that his government would not negotiate with “terrorists” and pledged to crush the separatist revolt “in a matter of hours”.
At Donetsk Sergei Prokofiev airport, fighter jets thundered overheard and a plume of black smoke rose from the newly built terminal buildings. Bursts of gunfire came from the long grass and trees lining the road to the airport’s main terminal. Three helicopter gunships swooped close to the ground, meeting volleys of small arms fire from rebels on the ground. The hundred or so separatist fighters defending the terminals appeared well-trained and coordinated. Earlier in the day they had arrived in truckloads at the main terminal.
Pro-Russian separatists reportedly first stormed the airport early yesterday, ejecting airport security and the Ukrainian military, which had been guarding the site. By morning they announced that all flights had been cancelled. It was the second time in recent weeks that they have overrun the international airport, whose vast new main terminal was built for the 2012 European soccer championships held in Ukraine. On 6 May, the rebels closed the building and stopped flights for one day.
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
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Ukrainian soldiers from the 'Azov' battalion guard their base in Mariupol, Donetsk
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Children were transferred from orphanages in Donetsk and Makeyevka to escape the fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists
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Ukrainian servicemen captured by pro-Russian separatists sit on the ground as they are assigned to clean a street in Snizhne in the Donetsk region
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A view inside the Youth Culture Centre destroyed by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk
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A woman holds a portrait of her dead son as she speaks during a rally in front of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office in Kiev
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A boy ascends the stairs of a bomb shelter after the shelling in the Petrovskiy district in Donetsk
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A medic looks at thirty coffins prepared for the funerals of pro-Russian rebels killed during heavy fighting at Donetsk airport, outside a Donetsk morgue
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Relatives mourn near the coffin of Mark Zverev, a taxi driver shot dead during clashes at the Donetsk airport between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian rebels, during his funeral in the village of Grabari on the outskirts of Donetsk
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Medical workers carry a wounded pro-Russian militant on a stretcher after armed clashes occured between pro-Russian gunmen and Ukrainian troops in Slavyansk
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A member of a newly-formed pro-Russian armed group called the Russian Orthodox Army mans a barricade near Donetsk airport
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Black smoke rises from a shot down Ukrainian Army helicopter outside Slovyansk
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A woman is overcome with emotion as she looks at blood stains and damage around a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
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A local man looks at damage near a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
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A bloodstained icon of Jesus is seen among blood soaked shattered glass atop a wrecked truck near the Donetsk airport
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A family member attends a funeral for Olga Prokhorenko (60) who was killed by shrapnel after Ukrainian government forces shelled their location, during the funeral in Slovyansk
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A woman reacts after seeing the lifeless body of a man killed by shrapnel following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Slovyansk
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Pro-Russian militants take position on the roof of the international airport of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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A woman embraces a pro-Russian separatist from the "East" battalion during a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk
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A Ukrainian helicopter Mi-24 gunship fires its cannons against rebels at the main terminal building of Donetsk international airport
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A pro-Russian gunman changes his position near the airport, outside Donetsk
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A pro-Russian gunman aims his weapon near the airport, outside Donetsk. Ukraine's military launched air strikes against separatists who had taken over the airport in the eastern capital of Donetsk in what appeared to be the most visible operation of the Ukrainian troops since they started a crackdown on insurgents
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Pro-Russians ride on a truck in Donetsk. A convoy of an armored personnel carrier and seven trucks carrying several hundred heavily armed men drove through central Donetsk and gunmen got out of the trucks, stood to attention and gave shots in the air in jubilation as a crowd of several thousand supporters cheered them and chanted: "Heroes!"
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An elderly woman leans against the chest of a pro-Russian gunman in Lenin square in Donetsk
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Pro-Russian militants guard a psychiatric hospital after shell explosions during the fighting between pro-Russian militants and the Ukrainian army, in Semyonovka village, outside Slavyansk
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Ukrainian troops stand guard at a checkpoint on the road near the eastern city of Izum, Donetsk
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Members of the Democratic Alliance party take part in a performance in front of the French embassy in Kiev. Protesters set up a pool with the blood of animals and models of warships in a protest against French plans for the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to the Russian Navy
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A man carries a portrait of pro-Russian activist Vadim Hudich, who was killed in a shooting incident at the head of a funeral procession in the eastern Ukranian town of Krasnoarmeisk
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A voter is seen inside a voting booth at a polling station during the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission sort ballots as they start counting votes of referendum on the status of Luhansk region in Luhansk
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Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box as they start counting votes of the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission empty ballot boxes as they start counting votes after a referendum, at a polling station in Lugansk
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Local residents watch as others give first aid to a man who was shot in the leg by Ukranian militia in the village of Krasnoarmisk. Eyewitness said that Ukranian militia tried to stop the referendum voters briefly taking the City Hall of Krasnoarmisk, where unarmed pro-Russian supporters were gathering. Reportedly the Ukranian militia came out out the building and started shooting at the people, killing at least one man and leaving at least two others injured
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Members of a local election commission count votes after a referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members at a polling station in Donetsk
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Voters visit a polling station to take part in the referendum on the status of Donetsk
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An Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) with a Russian flag drives through the center of Slaviansk during the day of referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members in Slavyansk
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A statue of Lenin is placed in front of a pro-Russian barricade on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk
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A feamle veteran (C) sings during 'Victory Day' celebrations in Donetsk
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People stand near the burning Mariupol police station
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Ukrainian soldiers stand guard beside an armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint in Mariupol. Ukrainian forces seized the rebel-held city hall in the eastern port city of Mariupol, driving out pro-Russian activists, then withdrew, making no attempt to hold onto the building
The operation to retake the terminals began around noon. On the roads nearby, police were stopping traffic and warning them of the danger. Pedestrians stopped to stare upwards at the jets rumbling overhead. One woman leapt off a bus that was stopped at a police checkpoint, shouting: “What is happening?” before running away down a nearby street. At a luxury car dealership by the airport, the vehicles had all been removed from the showroom windows and the men inside hurried out, locking the doors behind them before speeding away.
Fighting later broke out around the city’s railway station, where one civilian was reported killed after being hit by a stray bullet. The latest clashes are the most high profile and visible since Ukrainian forces began operations several weeks ago against the separatists who have overrun the eastern regions of the country.
They are a bold riposte to Russian calls to scale back military operations against the rebels. Sergie Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, had indicated that Moscow was willing to talk to the new Ukrainian leadership. “We are ready for dialogue with Kiev’s representatives, with Petro Poroshenko,” he said but added that continued military action against the rebels in the east would be a “colossal mistake”. Kiev’s interim government has accused Russia of backing the separatist uprising, an allegation that Moscow denies.
Mr Poroshenko had harsh words for the separatists yesterday, whom he denounced as little better than pirates.
“Their goal is to turn Donbas into a Somalia where they would rule with the power of machine guns,” he said, adding that he would not enter into dialogue with the rebel leadership. “They want to preserve a bandit state which is held in place by force of arms,” he said. “Nobody in any civilised state will hold negotiations with terrorists.”
Confectionery tycoon Mr Poroshenko, often referred to as the “chocolate king” of Ukraine, had won 54 per cent of the vote, with 80 per cent of the ballots counted. His closest rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko trailed behind him with just 13 per cent of the vote, eliminating the need for a second round of polling.
Mr Poroshenko is seen as a pragmatist, capable of straddling the east-west divide in the country. He has served in cabinets led by both pro-Russian and pro-European leaders. But his foremost commitment appears to be pacifying and unifying Ukraine. Asked by a journalist on Sunday whether his first visit as President would be to Moscow or Brussels, he replied, “Donbas”. He has also vowed to regain the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in March.
In Donetsk, many expressed scepticism about the new President. Yuriy, a handy-man working in the city’s centre, said he was doubtful about all politicians.
“I don’t know,” he answered when asked his opinion of the new President. “We’ll see what he does in the future. For me, all of them there [in Kiev] are the same.”
There was a high turnout for Sunday’s poll, with about 60 per cent of Ukraine’s 35 million eligible voters taking part. But separatists succeeded in closing down 80 per cent of the polling stations across eastern Donetsk and Luhansk.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that the vote was mostly in keeping with international standards and gave the new President “legitimacy” to open dialogue with separatists in the east.
It is hoped that the election of a new leader, three months after President Yanukovych was toppled from office, will be a step towards greater stability in Ukraine.
“I’m fed up with the situation here,” said Edgard in Donetsk. He was furious that his young daughter had to see armed men on the streets. “Just go to the fields and have a fight there. Get out of the city centre”