Reuters journalists counted 20 bodies in combat fatigues in one
room of a city morgue in Donetsk. Some of the bodies were missing
limbs, sign that the government had brought to bear overwhelming
firepower against the rebels for the first time.
"From our side, there are more than 50 (dead)," the prime minister
of the rebels' self-styled Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander
Borodai, told Reuters at the hospital.
The government said it suffered no losses in the assault, which
began with air strikes hours after Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted
to elect a 48-year-old billionaire confectionary magnate Petro
Poroshenko as their new president.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has declared Moscow's right to
intervene to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine, demanded an
immediate halt to the offensive. Moscow also said it would not
consider a visit by Poroshenko for any talks.
Until now, Ukrainian forces have largely avoided direct assaults on
the separatists, in part out of what they say is fear of
precipitating an invasion by tens of thousands of Russian troops
massed on the border.
But the government in Kiev appears to have interpreted Poroshenko's
big election victory - he won more than 54 percent of the vote in a
field of 21 candidates, against 13 percent for his closest
challenger - as a mandate for decisive action.
After rebels seized the Donetsk airport on Monday, Ukrainian
warplanes and helicopters strafed them from the air and paratroopers
were flown in as part of the assault.
Shooting carried on through the night and on Tuesday the road to the
airport bore signs of fighting. Heavy machinegun fire could be heard
in the distance in mid-morning.
On the highway to the airport, a truck - the kind that rebels have
used to ferry dozens of fighters across the region - had been
obliterated by machinegun fire. Blood was sprayed across the road
and splattered as far away as a billboard seven meters above.
"The airport is completely under control," Interior Minister Arsen
Avakov told journalists in the capital Kiev. "The adversary suffered
heavy losses. We have no losses," he added.
"We'll continue the anti-terrorist operation until not a single
terrorist remains on the territory of Ukraine," First Deputy Prime
Minister Vitaly Yarema said on the margins of a government meeting.
Borodai, the rebel prime minister, also said the airport was now
under government control.
A hockey stadium in the city had been set ablaze, but the fire was
The battle marks the first time the government has unleashed the
full lethal force of its aircraft and ground troops directly at the
Donetsk rebels, a group of local volunteers and shadowy outsiders
led by a Muscovite that Kiev and Western countries say is a Russian
military intelligence agent.
In a news conference on Monday after his decisive election victory,
Poroshenko promised to invigorate the government's previously
ineffective "anti-terrorist" campaign, saying it ought to be able to
put down the revolt within hours, rather than months. He also said
there could be no negotiations with rebels he described as
terrorists, bandits and pirates.
The intensification of the Ukrainian campaign is a direct challenge
to Putin, who responded to the overthrow of a pro-Russian president
in Kiev in February by declaring that Russia has the right to invade
Ukraine to defend Russian speakers and swiftly annexing Ukraine's
The Kremlin said on Tuesday Putin had called for an end to the
Ukrainian military campaign and for dialogue between Kiev and the
separatists. Putin was speaking in a telephone call with Italy's
prime minister, his first reported comments on Ukraine since
[to top of second column]
For two months Putin has massed troops on the frontier, while
pro-Russian gunmen took control of towns and cities in the east and
the Kiev government seemed powerless to stop them.
consistent message was that the government in Kiev, which took power
after President Viktor Yanukovich fled from an uprising by
pro-European demonstrators, was an illegitimate "fascist junta" and
that Russian speakers were in danger.
But Poroshenko's margin of victory undermines that message, even
though separatists succeeded in blocking the vote in the two eastern
provinces they hold, keeping 10 percent of the overall national
electorate away from the polls.
Poroshenko has served as a government minister both under Yanukovich
and his Ukrainian nationalist rivals, giving him a reputation as a
pragmatist capable of bridging Ukraine's pro- and anti-Russian
The separatists have repeatedly called for Putin to send his forces
to aid them, and Putin has followed the annexation of Crimea by
turning the protection of Russians in other former Soviet republics
into a central theme of his rule. Last month Putin referred to
eastern Ukraine as "New Russia".
But in the run-up to the election his words had become more
accommodating. On the eve of the vote, he promised to accept the
will of the Ukrainian people. On Monday his government said it was
prepared to work with Poroshenko, although it called for him to call
off the military campaign.
Western countries say they do not trust Putin's promises not to
interfere, and that he announced he would withdraw his troops
repeatedly without doing so.
The United States and European Union have imposed limited sanctions
on a few dozen Russian individuals and small firms but have said
they would take much stronger action, including measures against
whole swathes of Russian industry, if Moscow interfered in Sunday's
In another sign of confidence since Poroshenko's election, Kiev
pressed a claim on Tuesday for more than $1 billion from Russia's
natural gas export monopoly Gazprom, for gas it said Moscow had
"stolen" when it annexed Crimea.
Russia has threatened to switch off Ukraine's gas from June 3 unless
it pays Gazprom up front for supplies. Moscow wants to charge Kiev
far more for gas than it charges European countries. Kiev wants a
lower price. A gas cut-off could hit onward shipments to Western
Europe, some of which transit Ukraine.
(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Pavel Polityuk, Richard
Balmforth and Gareth Jones in Kiev, and Katya Golubkova and Denis
Pinchuk in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff, editing by Peter
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.