Thursday 18 December 2014

Rebel gunmen ready to fight in final defence of Donetsk

Tom Parfitt

Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30

Ukrainian servicemen guard a checkpoint in the town of Debaltseve, in Donetsk region. (REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)
Ukrainian servicemen guard a checkpoint in the town of Debaltseve, in Donetsk region. (REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

The men at the Budennovsky checkpoint say they are ready.

For weeks, the group of rebel gunmen has worked like traffic cops, checking vehicles coming in and out of this eastern Ukrainian city.

Yet soon, they expect, it will be time to fight: retreating behind cinder blocks and slinking into roadside trenches to mount what many expect to be the final defence of Donetsk, a million-strong metropolis facing imminent attack.

"You'll see," says 'Metky' - 'Sharpshooter' - (37) a thickset former miner wearing camouflage fatigues and body-builder's gloves and cradling an AK-74 with a grenade launcher fixed underneath, "Tanks don't work in a city. We'll be at every corner, every window. Bang! An RPG, straight down the hatch."

Such a battle is hard to imagine in 21st-Century Europe. Yet, it is creeping closer after Ukrainian forces advanced in a classic pincer movement last week to cut off the rebel capital from its supply lines that lead east through rebel-held territory to the border with Russia.

It is almost four months since separatists in the Russian-dominated Donbass region of eastern Ukraine launched their armed bid for autonomy.

Initial victories have slowly been eroded and Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's pro-western president, has promised to crush the "terrorist" uprising.

Today, the territory carved out for the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics" is shrinking fast as the Ukrainian army makes ground. If government forces can seize full control of the area close to the crash site where Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down on July 17, killing all 298 people on board, they will have fully encircled Donetsk.

On Thursday, Igor Girkin, the separatists' military commander, was forced to issue a diktat declaring the city to be officially in a "state of siege."

His friend, the "people's governor" Pavel Gubarev, promises a new Stalingrad if Kiev-backed forces move on the city. It may be an idle boast and Ukrainian forces appear to have a great superiority in men and hardware. The rebels probably have no more than 20,000 fighters, mostly in Donetsk. Yet, everyone remembers another example: Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in the Nineties.

Then, an overconfident Russian army sent columns of tanks into the city, only to see them destroyed by few, but nimble rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). What's more, in Donbass a flow of weapons and volunteer fighters across the border from Vladimir Putin's Russia, now fixed in a "New Cold War" with the West throughout the former Soviet Union, has bolstered the rebel movement.

The United States, Australia, Britain and other European states believe the Kremlin may have supplied or manned a Buk missile launcher allegedly used to knock down MH17.

In a telephone call to Mr Putin late on Friday, President Barack Obama again expressed his "deep concerns" about Moscow's increased support for the separatists.

But at Budennovsky, the men - who give only their noms de guerre - are locals and say they fight for their land, not for Moscow. "Every man has a grenade," says "The Greek", a 31-year-old plumber who spent 15 years living on Crete before returning to his native village just outside Donetsk.

"When the battle begins no one will allow himself to be taken alive."

The men have real cause for grief and anger. One has a son and parents in Torez, one of the towns to the east which the Ukrainian army is pounding with artillery, at a point close to the MH17 crash site.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed or maimed and Donetsk, particularly the rebel defence and artillery units on its outskirts, is peppered daily by shells. On Friday, one ploughed into a road on the western fringe, killing one resident and injuring several in a passing minibus, which was left awash with blood.

Earlier in the week, heavy artillery shells - thought to be 130 or 152mm - smashed into apartment blocks in Vetka district, the first time they have hit so close to the city centre, a mile away. Back at the Budennovsky checkpoint the men see little room left for compromise. "If you told me a year ago that I'd be running around with this Kalashnikov, I wouldn't have believed you," says
'Dyusa' (39), a car mechanic.

"Now I know we'll fight
 to the last drop of blood. And if the Ukrainians take Donetsk we'll go to the woods. That's the next phase: partisan war."

Sunday Independent

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