At least 40 pro-Russian separatists have been killed in clashes at Donetsk international airport as the Ukrainian military, under the command of the country’s new president, launched airstrikes on armed rebels who had stormed the terminals.
The Ukrainian government said none of its soldiers was killed in the operation, which began just hours after Petro Poroshenko was elected Ukraine’s new president. “The airport is completely under control,” said Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on Tuesday as gun and artillery fire could still be heard. “The adversary suffered heavy losses. We have no losses.”
The government assault began on Monday morning and continued yesterday. Ukrainian fighter jets and helicopter gunships strafed rebel positions around the main terminals in the fiercest assault since the conflict began in the east of the country two months ago.
Until Mr Poroshenko’s election, the Ukrainian military operation against the separatists who established a pseudo state in Donetsk and Luhansk had been largely confined to skirmishes in satellite cities and the surrounding countryside.
This week’s re-calibration of the violence brings the conflict to the city of Donetsk itself, as the new government appears to be preparing for a showdown with the rebels who seized control here in April. Donetsk was empty yesterday. Shops were closed and many had covered their entrances. Banks were imposing a limit on withdrawals. Schools, universities and courts were also closed.
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
On the way to the airport, on Kievsky Avenue, a smashed and blood stained army truck lay on its side on the edge of the road. Local residents gave differing accounts at what had happened but their anger was palpable. Just over a mile from the airport, police were blocking the road to the terminals and out of the city. Alongside them armed separatists were constructing more permanent barricades using chain saws to cut down trees lining the street and using sandbags, tyres and barbed wire to block the road.
“We’ve never seen anything like this in Donetsk before,” said Vladimir Olenseivitch, a lawyer, “I thought after the election Poroshenko would pause for a while, but the situation has become worse.”
Mr Poroshenko won 54 per cent of the vote in Sunday’s elections, giving him a comfortable mandate. The burly chocolate manufacturer, 48, has refused to negotiate with the separatists who he describes as terrorists, bandits and pirates.
The mood was subdued at the Government Administration building in Donetsk where the rebels have their improvised headquarters. “We came to vacate the airport with guns, hunting rifles, sticks and with our desire for freedom,” said Alexander Kishiniets, who described himself as the Commissioner of the Committee of People’s Control.
He complained that the separatist arsenal was no match for the Ukrainian army and said they would require external assistance. “We are asking for help from Russia. If not soldiers, at least weapons,” he said.
Russia has repeatedly called for Ukraine to end its military operations in the east. Last month President Putin referred to eastern Ukraine as “new Russia” and has promised to protect Russians in former Soviet Republics. However, he has softened his stance over the past week, saying he would recognise the results of Ukraine’s elections and pulling back some troops from near the border.
The Kremlin said yesterday that Mr Putin had called for an “immediate halt” to the “punitive military operation”.
Meanwhile, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said that a team of its monitors were missing in the Donetsk region. Four men from Turkey, Switzerland, Estonia and Denmark were last seen at a city checkpoint at 6pm on Monday. In April seven international military observers linked to the OSCE were kidnapped by separatists and held for a week.