UKRAINE

Dozens killed in Donetsk airport siege as residents urged to stay indoors

Dozens killed as Ukrainian forces use fighter jets to retake Donetsk air terminal from rebels

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 May, 2014, 10:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 4:23am

Donetsk in eastern Ukraine was in turmoil yesterday, a day after government forces used fighter jets to stop pro-Russia separatists taking over the city's airport.

Dozens were reported killed and the mayor went on television to urge residents to stay indoors.

The city of a million was engulfed by fighting when rebels moved to seize the airport, Ukraine's second largest. They were repelled by government forces using combat jets and helicopter gunships. Intensive gun fire was heard throughout the day and into the night. Plumes of black smoke rose into the air and officials shut down Donetsk airport and nearby streets to traffic.

Donetsk mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko said 40 people, including two civilians, were killed in Monday's fighting. Rebel leaders, meanwhile, said the deaths could reach up to 100.

The battles came as billionaire tycoon Petro Poroshenko claimed victory in Sunday's presidential vote, which authorities in Kiev had hoped would unify the deeply divided nation. Poroshenko, who is yet to be sworn in, has vowed to negotiate a peaceful end to the insurgency in the east, but also has called the separatists "Somali pirates" and promised he would stop them from sowing more chaos.

The bodies of about 30 insurgents were taken yesterday to a hospital morgue in Donetsk, said Leonid Baranov of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, who was at the morgue. The fighters had been wounded and were being transported to a hospital in a truck when it was shot up by government forces, Baranov said.

Baranov said up to 100 rebels were probably killed in Monday's fighting, adding that many bodies had not been recovered because they were in areas under government control.

"As they [Ukrainian forces] are controlling the airport and the fight was there ... we cannot right now identify exactly how many victims we have," he said, adding that hundreds were also wounded in the fighting.

Baranov said the morgue was too small to hold all the bodies and authorities were searching for refrigerator trucks pending identification of the dead.

Another Donetsk insurgent leader, Denis Pushilin, also said up to 100 people had been killed, up to half of them civilians, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Pushilin said government snipers were firing at people trying to evacuate the bodies. His comments also could not be independently confirmed.

Early yesterday, unidentified men stormed Donetsk's main ice hockey arena and set it ablaze, according to the mayor's office. The arena, owned by a local Ukrainian lawmaker, was to host the 2015 world championships.

By yesterday, the Donetsk airport was under full government control, Ukraine's acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said. He said dozens of insurgents may have been killed but government forces did not suffer any casualties.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, meanwhile, said it had lost contact with one of its four-man monitoring teams in Donetsk on Monday evening. There was no immediate claim of responsibility but rebel groups have previously kidnapped OSCE monitors in Ukraine.

In the neighbouring Luhansk region, which like Donetsk has declared independence from the central government, the Ukrainian Border Guards Service said it repelled a group of gunmen who were trying to break through the border from Russia.

The interim government in Kiev has pledged to press ahead with its operation against insurgents, which has angered residents, many of whom see the government as nationalists bent on repressing Russian speakers in the east.