Government forces killed dozens of rebel fighters on Monday and
Tuesday in an assault to retake the airport, which the rebels had
seized the morning after Ukrainians overwhelmingly elected Petro
Poroshenko as president.
Pro-Moscow gunmen have declared the city of a million people capital
of an independent Donetsk People's Republic.
After the government assault - the first time Kiev has unleashed its
full military force against the fighters after weeks of restraint -
morgues were filled with bodies of rebel gunmen. Some were missing
limbs in a sign of the massive firepower used against them.
The separatist authorities say as many as 50 died, including a
truckload of wounded fighters blasted apart as they were driven away
from the battlefield. The government said it suffered no losses in
the operation, which saw its aircraft strafe the airport and
paratroops land to reclaim it.
Poroshenko, a billionaire confectionary magnate who became the first
Ukrainian since 1991 to win the presidency outright in a single
round of voting, repeated his promise to restore government control
rapidly over secessionist-held areas.
We are in a state of war in the east. Crimea is occupied by Russia
and there is great instability. We must react, he told Germany's
Bild newspaper. The anti-terrorist operation has finally begun in
earnest. We will no longer permit these terrorists to kidnap and
shoot people, occupy buildings or suspend the law. We will put an
end to these horrors a real war is being waged against our
His swift offensive has thrown down a challenge to Russian President
Vladimir Putin, who made defending Russians in other parts of the
former Soviet Union a pillar of his rule since declaring his right
to use military force in Ukraine in March.
Moscow has demanded Kiev halt the military operation in the east,
but Putin has also announced the withdrawal of tens of thousands of
troops he had massed on the frontier. A NATO officer said on
Wednesday thousands of Russian troops had indeed been pulled out,
although tens of thousands were still in place.
Moscow says it is willing to work with Poroshenko but has no plans
for him to visit for talks. It denies accusations by Kiev and
Western countries that it is behind the rebellion.
I have no doubt that Putin could end the fighting using his direct
influence, Poroshenko said. I definitely want to speak with Putin
and hold talks to stabilize the situation.
In Donetsk, some shops were closed and streets were quieter than
usual, but calm had returned. Around 1,000 miners bussed in from
around the eastern Donbass coalfield staged a demonstration in
support of the separatists in Donetsk on Wednesday.
"Kiev does not rule us any more, we will no longer accept that,"
Denis Pushilin, leader of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic
which held a referendum on independence on May 11, told the miners.
A Ukrainian fighter jet roared overhead, and some gunfire could be
heard in the distance, apparently from rebels shooting at the
[to top of second column]
A miner from the state-owned Abakumova mine attending the
demonstration who gave his name as Valery said: "I want peace and to
be able to work and make money. I want the occupying soldiers to
leave and return to their Kiev junta," he said.
Russia and its state media which broadcast into eastern Ukraine have
consistently described the government in Kiev, which took power
after a pro-Russian president fled in February, as illegitimate and
led by "fascists".
But Moscow's position was undermined by the scale of Poroshenko's
election victory, and Kiev now appears to feel emboldened to act
against the rebels with less threat of Russian retaliation.
A former cabinet minister under both pro- and anti-Russian
presidents, Poroshenko won nearly 55 percent of the vote in a field
of 21 candidates and commanded support across the east-west divide
that has defined Ukrainian politics since independence. His nearest
challenger won just 13 percent.
Other potential rivals had bowed out and urged supporters to back
the frontrunner in a show of national unity.
The separatists managed to block voting in Donetsk and neighboring
Luhansk provinces, but the 10 percent of the electorate kept away
from the polls would not have made a difference in the outcome.
Although many in eastern Ukraine are skeptical of the government in
Kiev, opinion polls have shown most favor some sort of unity with
Ukraine. The majority in the east describe themselves as ethnic
Ukrainians although they speak Russian as their primary language.
"We live in Ukraine," said Mikhail, 31, a theater manager. "I work
at the Ukrainian Theatre in Donetsk. Would I work at the Donetsk
People's Republic Theatre? That doesn't sound so good. I think all
this mess is only temporary.
"I didn't vote because we could not vote here, but Poroshenko seems
decent," he said. "We will see. Many were elected as decent and then
turned into bribetakers as a general rule. I hope he will not let
(Additional reporting by Lina Kushch in Donetsk, Gareth Jones and
Richard Balmforth in Kiev and Stephen Brown in Berlin; Writing by
Peter Graff; editing by David Stamp)
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