UKRAINIAN forces retreated from a strategically vital airport in the east of the country yesterday after coming under a ferocious assault from separatist fighters reportedly backed by a Russian army tank column.
Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's president, described the clashes at Luhansk airport as the latest step in Moscow's "direct and open aggression".
Valeriy Geletey, the country's defence minister, warned that a "great war" had broken out with Russia. He said it was a conflict "the likes of which Europe has not seen since the Second World War".
Footage broadcast on Russian state television showed tanks firing as combat raged around the airport building, which appeared to have been heavily damaged during weeks of fighting.
"Luhansk. We are retreating. Long convoys of tanks, APCs and lorries full of run-down and exhausted soldiers are going past. Black from soot and dusty faces. Dried blood on their bullet-proof vests. The men have endured a battle with a battalion of new Russian T-90 tanks," Yuri Kasyanov, a Ukrainian activist delivering supplies to the front line, wrote on Facebook.
The Ukrainian retreat is the latest in a series of defeats at the hands of Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country in a conflict that the United Nations says has claimed 2,593 lives since mid-April.
Human Rights Watch said more than 300 civilians had been killed in Luhansk and the surrounding area in the upsurge in fighting.
Despite Kiev's assertions and mounting evidence on the ground of the presence of Russian troops, the Kremlin has repeatedly denied that its military is operating inside Ukraine. But Mr Geletey said Russian reinforcements had rescued the separatists from a crushing defeat. (© Independent News Service)