Ukrainian forces use air strikes in battle for airport
A fierce battle for Donetsk airport, with Ukraine using air strikes and helicopter gunships against pro-Russian separatists, shattered the country's election day truce yesterday.
The city was engulfed in a bloody conflict for the first time as Ukrainian forces tried to retake the international airport from rebels who had occupied it just hours after the country had elected a new president.
While fighting has become a regular feature of life around the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk, there had not been street to street fighting in Donetsk until yesterday.
The battle began when fighters loyal to the so-called Donetsk People's Republic seized control of the airport in the early hours of the morning, in what appeared to be a show of force in response to Petro Poroshenko's victory in the presidential election.
Flights were suspended for several hours at the request of the rebels, who were demanding that troops from a small Ukrainian garrison who have secured the perimeter of the airport since the beginning of the crisis lay down their weapons.
But government forces launched a counter-attack at about noon, reportedly using helicopter-borne troops.
Heavy machine-gun fire and explosions from high explosive rounds, mortars and grenade launchers rent the air as the hours-long battle spilled out of the airport and into nearby residential neighbourhoods.
One dead civilian was seen at the city's main railway station, a mile and a half to the south, who police said had been killed by stray gunfire from the battle.
Earlier, Mr Poroshenko, the businessman who won Sunday's presidential election, had called for an intensification of the "anti-terrorist" operation in the region, although it was not clear whether he had ordered the attempt to retake the airport.
"The efficiency of the anti-terrorist operation will be sharply increased," he said.
"It shouldn't last for months – it should take a few hours."
Dmitry, a 19-year-old local who has joined the rebel fighters, said the Ukrainians deployed attack helicopters and jet fighters in the counter-attack.
"We're always ready for an attack, that something might happen, but we had no specific intelligence or reason to expect this," he said.
"About midday helicopters appeared from the north-east, then jet fighters. I heard one or two large explosions, which sounded like the aircraft had dropped bombs. Then the fighting started."
Dmitry described the battle as a Ukrainian army offensive in which government forces had the initiative, weight of numbers, and superior firepower.
"They had artillery preparation. We had a couple of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft rocket launchers and that was it," he said, as he took shelter in an alley less than a mile from the main entrance to the airport.
By mid-afternoon one group of rebel fighters retreated to a road intersection at a retail park near the airport in order to evacuate a seriously wounded fighter.
Shortly after the casualty had been driven off in a civilian car, sniper fire and mortar rounds began to began to close in on the position, forcing the fighters to withdraw further.
While it was impossible to tell who had the upper hand in the clash, the leadership of the Donetsk People's Republic claimed to have retained control of the airport.
But fighting continued as night began to fall, with helicopter gunships swooping low over the northern part of the city and the sound of heavy weapons fire continuing.
At a press conference in the occupied regional administration building in Donetsk city centre where the rebels have established their headquarters, Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader, said the election in Ukraine was "illegal". (© Daily Telegraph, London)