Chaos in Ukraine as Russian fighters take separatists' HQ
Ukraine's rebel movement was plunged into crisis yesterday after pro-Russian fighters backed by armoured personnel carriers seized the movement's headquarters in Donetsk and destroyed the barricades protecting it.
The surprise move by a group called the Vostok Battalion, a heavily armed rebel unit that has been involved in fighting against the Ukrainian army, sparked speculation about an internal coup within the fractious rebel movement.
There was also speculation that the move could have been an attempt by the leadership to purge undesirable elements within the Donetsk Peoples' Republic.
Key rebel leaders, who were not in the building when the fighters arrived, insisted they were still in control and had even ordered the operation.
"This is a police action directed against looters," a rebel source close to Alexander Borodai, the prime minister of the self-declared republic, said. "There is no coup. Everything is under control."
Gunmen from the battalion, which includes fighters from mainland Russia as well as Ukrainian-born volunteers, said they had acted out of disgust at the looting of a supermarket following the battle for Donetsk airport on Monday.
"We're on the same side, we're never going back to Ukraine. We're just against lawlessness and theft," said one fighter.
The 11-storey regional administration building has been the headquarters of the Donetsk rebel movement since it was stormed and occupied by pro-Russian activists on April 6.
Yesterday's raid finally put an end to that occupation, with Vostok Battalion fighters evicting hundreds of pro-Russian activists from the building before bringing in bulldozers to destroy the barricades built to protect it against the police.
Access to the building had previously been tightly controlled and the raid provided a rare opportunity to glimpse the chaotic mechanics of the pro-Russian counter-revolution.
Several offices had been marked with the initials of the NKVD – Josef Stalin's feared secret police force, which the 'republic' appears to have attempted to revive.
The purge came as republican leaders dropped all pretence of Russian non-involvement in the uprising, with rebel leaders announcing the repatriation of dozens of bodies of Russian fighters killed in Monday's battle at the airport.
Lorries carrying the bodies of 33 Russian citizens, who were among dozens of rebels killed, left Donetsk for Russia on Thursday evening.
Casualties from Monday's fighting were so heavy that fighters had to take over a refrigeration facility at a local factory when the main city morgue overflowed.
The bodies of six fighters were laid in coffins waiting to be loaded on to the huge articulated refrigerator lorry that would carry them to the Russian border when the 'Daily Telegraph' was granted access to the facility yesterday.
The convoy, escorted by police, planned to carry the bodies to Rostov-on-Don, where they would be dispatched to families across Russia, rebel spokesmen organising the convoy said.
Rebel leaders said that the Russian fighters were all volunteers, not members of the regular Russian armed forces. They reiterated the hope that President Vladimir Putin would finally send troops to assist them.
The open admission of the presence of foreign fighters marks a remarkable change of tune from the separatist leadership, which previously maintained that its forces were entirely made up of locals.
While Donetsk was relatively calm on Thursday, fighting continued around the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk.
In a serious loss for the Ukrainians, 14 servicemen including a general were killed when rebels downed a helicopter near the city.
Olexander Turchynov, Ukraine's acting president told parliament rebels used a portable air defence missile to bring the down the helicopter and said Gen Volodymyr Kulchitsky was among the dead.
A separatist spokesman had earlier told Russian news agencies that the militants had downed a Ukrainian army helicopter in a fierce battle on the southern outskirts of the rebel-controlled city.
The spokesman said: "As a result of active military activities, several houses belonging to civilians caught fire."
The death toll is one of the highest suffered by Ukrainian forces since the separatist insurgency first erupted in eastern Ukraine in early April. (© Daily Telegraph, London)