Ukraine crisis: Kiev takes on rebels in the east

Ukraine’s new President vows to end conflict as troops attack pro-Russian fighters at Donetsk airport

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.

 

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.

A Christian Orthodox priest blesses pro-Russian militants yesterday at a service in the village of Senyonovka, near the eastern city of Slovyansk A Christian Orthodox priest blesses pro-Russian militants yesterday at a service in the village of Senyonovka, near the eastern city of Slovyansk (AFP)

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”

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