Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Ukraine crisis: Rebels massacred as new president unleashes military in Donetsk


Portia Walker
Wednesday 28 May 2014 13:51 BST
A landslide presidential victory has given Petro Poroshenko the mandate to get tough
A landslide presidential victory has given Petro Poroshenko the mandate to get tough (AP)

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.

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.”

Medical staff at the Kalinina morgue in Donetsk prepare to attend to the body of a pro-Russian fighter (Getty) (Getty Images)

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”.

A Ukrainian helicopter Mi-24 gunship fires its canons against rebels at the main terminal building of Donetsk international airport (Reuters)

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.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in