Sunday 17 November 2019

Russian-backed separatists capture airport in fierce fight

Members of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic drive an armoured vehicle on the outskirts of Donetsk. Reuters
Members of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic drive an armoured vehicle on the outskirts of Donetsk. Reuters
A view shows a damaged trolleybus in Donetsk. At least six civilians were killed on Thursday when a shell or a mortar hit a trolleybus stop in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, a Reuters witness said. Reuters
Prisoners of war (POWs), representing Ukrainian armed forces and escorted by members of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, line up as they visit a site near the public transport stop, where civilians were earlier killed on Thursday, in Donetsk. Reuters
A Russian backed separatist rebel takes cover in a shelter from shelling in the Kievsky district, 3 km from the Airport, in Donetsk. Photo: AP

Roland Oliphant

Ukrainian forces appeared to withdraw from Donetsk airport last night, bringing to an end an eight-month battle in what will be seen as a bitter blow for pro-Kiev forces and a triumph for the Russian-backed separatists they are fighting.

It came as at least six civilians were killed yesterday after a bus came under fire in the separatist-held part of the city.

The Ukrainian ministry of defence had insisted earlier this week that part of the airport complex was still under government control and that fighting continued.

But Yuri Butusov, a Ukrainian journalist, wrote on Facebook last night that the airport had been abandoned because "the new and old terminals, the control tower, everything that could serve as a defensive point has been completely destroyed."

The claim was later confirmed in a post by the Azov regiment, one of several volunteer battalions fighting alongside regular government forces.

A Ukrainian military spokesman played down the surrender of the terminal buildings, saying it was simply a tactical withdrawal.

"Yesterday the decision was taken to leave the territory of the terminal for new positions," Vladislav Seleznyov said. "Fierce fighting continues."

"We continue to control the southern part of the airport ... we left the new terminal because it looks like a sieve and there's simply nowhere to hide there," Mr Seleznyov added.

Reports of the fall of Donetsk airport sparked mourning on Ukrainian social media, with many users posting tributes to the fallen defenders and angry denunciations of the failure of generals and politicians to avoid the defeat. Separatist commanders originally claimed to have captured the airport on January 14, when reports from Russian journalists embedded with rebel forces showed rebels moving freely through the rubble of the terminal buildings.

And LifeNews, a fiercely pro-Kremlin outlet, showed footage of what it said were dead Ukrainian soldiers found in the basement.

Rebel fighters told the station that they found about 15 badly wounded Ukrainians amongst the dead, and that the troops had apparently been abandoned by their officers.

The battle for Donetsk airport, where a garrison of Ukrainian troops held off separatist attackers for eight months, had become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

The defenders of the airport came to be known as "cyborgs", a nickname that was reputedly coined by a separatist fighter exasperated by the defenders' apparently superhuman tenacity in the face of ferocious attacks. It was quickly adopted by both Ukrainian bloggers and the military, with those who served inside the airport earning the right to wear a cyborg shoulder patch.

Fighting continued in and around Donetsk on Monday, with correspondents inside the city reporting heavy artillery fire from the area surrounding the airport.

It was unclear whether the attack on the bus in a separatist- held part of the city yesterday was connected with the fighting at the airport.

Separatists who control the city initially blamed the attack on a guerrilla unit operating inside the city, rather than Ukrainian artillery firing from beyond the city limits. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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