Ukraine's army suffers bloodiest day yet as troops killed in ambush
Published 14/05/2014 | 02:30
UKRAINE'S army suffered its bloodiest defeat since the onset of the crisis in the country's east, when seven soldiers were killed in an ambush.
Pro-Russian insurgents launched the attack on a road linking the towns of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, both of which they control.
The Ukrainian army had established a checkpoint on the highway, apparently designed to drive a wedge between the two rebel strongholds.
The ambush appears to have been a counter-strike by the pro-Russians, who declared independence in two eastern regions on Monday after a controversial referendum delivered a verdict in favour of self-rule.
The defence ministry in Kiev said a military convoy came under fire from about 30 insurgents as it passed under a bridge.
The assailants used rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. A further eight soldiers were wounded.
It was the heaviest blow suffered by the army since the government launched an "anti-terrorist" operation to restore control over Donetsk region last month. The battle highlighted the failure of the offensive to make any headway.
But it coincided with an announcement by Sergei Taruta, the official governor of the region, that Donetsk would still vote in Ukraine's presidential election on May 25, despite the area's supposed transformation into an independent "people's republic".
Mr Taruta, a steel billionaire, was appointed governor by the Kiev authorities in March. He remains in the city, although rebels who denounce him as an agent of a "fascist junta" now occupy his old office.
Mr Taruta believes they command only minority support, saying: "This part of Ukraine remains part of Ukraine."
Donetsk would participate in the election, he declared, although he conceded that voting would be impossible in Slavyansk.
Mr Taruta is trying to settle the crisis by negotiating with pro-Russian MPs from Donetsk. He has proposed a referendum in June on granting the region more autonomy.
But he ruled out negotiating with the separatist leaders who staged their own referendum on self-rule last Sunday.
In reality, however, the government may have little choice but to negotiate. Yesterday's defeat underlined the failure of its military offensive.
Elsewhere, Kiev may actually have less control than before the operation began. Last Friday, the security forces killed between five and 20 people in Mariupol, the second biggest city in Donetsk with a population of 500,000. Local people believe that innocent civilians were the main victims.
Afterwards, popular fury compelled the security forces to abandon Mariupol and turn over the city to the pro-Russian movement.
In some areas of Donetsk, the police have defected, leaving the offensive in the hands of the army and the National Guard. Many of the soldiers in the latter force are local men who live in fear of reprisals. While on duty, they often resort to wearing masks to conceal their identities.
Mr Taruta was still able to give a press conference at a Donetsk hotel, only streets from the separatist headquarters.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister, tried to broker a quick opening of talks between Kiev and the separatists controlling Donetsk and Luhansk.
Mr Steinmeier's visit to Ukraine is part of a plan for settling the country's crisis laid out by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has yet to make any headway.
Meanwhile, David Cameron condemned Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, accusing him of having a "basic desire to see countries that were once part of the Soviet Union in a sphere of Russian influence".
The UK's prime minister told MPs that Britain would send two further Typhoon warplanes to patrol the skies of eastern Europe in response to the crisis. Four British warplanes are currently in the area. (© Daily Telegraph, London)