Rebels prepare for fighting in Ukrainian city as dozens are killed in airport battle
Rebel separatist fighters in Donetsk were preparing for an offensive by government forces on the city centre last night, as details began to emerge of Monday's battle for the city's airport that left dozens dead in the bloodiest day so far of the east Ukraine uprising.
Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, the mayor of Donetsk, said 38 fighters and two civilians died in the battle that left Ukrainian forces in control of the airport and poised for a potential assault on the city itself. Rebel leaders claimed that the number killed was as high as 100.
"The airport is under our full control," said Arsen Avakov, Ukraine's interior minister. "The enemy suffered heavy losses. We have none."
While confusion still surrounds the full details of the battle, it became clear that rebels suffered the worst single loss of life in the battle for the east of the country since fighting broke out in April, giving the Ukrainian military its first decisive victory of the conflict.
Russia called on Kiev to stop "punitive actions" in the region and criticised newly elected president Petro Poroshenko for rejecting dialogue.
In his first public comments on Ukraine since Sunday's election, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, called for "an immediate end to the military's punitive operations in south-eastern regions and the establishment of peaceful dialogue between Kiev and regional representatives".
Mr Poroshenko said he believed military action against the rebels could be completed "within hours". US President Barack Obama phoned him yesterday to offer him "the full support of the United States". Mr Obama said America would assist Ukraine as Mr Poroshenko "seeks to unify and move his country forward".
While the number of casualties put forward by Mr Lukanchenko could not be independently confirmed, the bodies of at least 33 rebel fighters were piled up at one morgue in the city.
"Their wounds vary. Some were clearly caught in an explosion, some have shrapnel wounds, some gunshot wounds. All the 33 are Donetsk Republic fighters," said Sergei Khokholya, a detective working at the morgue.
He said the 33 were only those who had been identified. "It is possible there are still bodies in or around the airport," he added.
Leonid Baranov, of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, said up to 100 rebels were killed in the fighting. Other rebel officials claimed that many of the dead had been wounded fighters travelling away from the airport when their trucks were attacked. The claim could not be independently verified.
"European countries need to bring the Ukrainian government to justice for violating international agreements. It is illegal under the Geneva convention to kill the wounded," said Ivan Novok- ovsky, a deputy in the parliament of the Donetsk People's Republic.
Attempts to establish a final casualty figure were thwarted by visibly shaken rebel fighters standing guard at central hospitals, apparently worried that Ukrainian forces might plan to take the wounded. "Yes, they're our guys," one said before asking journalists to leave the central trauma unit.
Ukrainian officials said their forces had taken full control of the airport, although sporadic fighting, including automatic weapons fire and occasional explosions, continued yesterday.
"What you are hearing are attempts by terrorists to retake the airport, but it is entirely under our control," said a military official who asked not to be named.
Neither rebel fighters nor their political leaders showed any signs of leaving Donetsk, but what appears to have been the first decisive victory for the Ukrainians has created a sense that they are now very much on the defensive.
Rebels took advantage of a lull in the fighting yesterday to fortify the city, using heavy lorries loaded with sand to block the main road from the airport.
Meanwhile, two Ukrainian journalists accused of "spying" have been taken hostage by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern district of Luhansk, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's monitoring group said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)