DONETSK: Ukraine said Tuesday it had recaptured the airport in the eastern city of Donetsk after a day of air strikes and fierce gunbattles with pro-Moscow separatist militants that left dozens of people dead.
Caught up in the drama in Donetsk were a team of international monitors with the OSCE who have gone missing after being detained at a checkpoint.
As fear gripped the city’s streets, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Ukraine to end its “punitive” operation in the rebel-held east and for talks between Kiev and the insurgents.
The battle for the main transport hub in Ukraine’s industrial heartland erupted Monday just hours after president-elect Petro Poroshenko vowed to take a tough stand against the “terrorists”. “The airport is under our full control. The enemy suffered heavy losses. We have none,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said. He said however the military was continuing its operation and AFP journalists reported hearing sporadic gunfire and explosions during the day.
Donetsk mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko said two civilians and 38 combatants had died and another 31 were wounded, including Russians and possibly Chechens.
An AFP correspondent reported seeing body parts and blood splattered near a bullet-riddled truck on the airport road, where makeshift blockades had been set up with dumper trucks and piles of tyres.
The streets of Donetsk were eerily deserted as people stayed inside, and shops and restaurants shut early.
“The people around here don’t know what is going on. Everyone says something different,” said one resident called Sergei. “It is terrifying.”
Combat jets and helicopter gunships struck the airport terminal Monday after it was seized by scores of gunmen just a day after Ukraine’s presidential election won by Poroshenko.
The OSCE, which has played a key role in trying to end the crisis, said it had lost contact since Monday with four monitors — a Dane, an Estonian, a Swiss and a Turk — while on patrol in Donetsk.
An official in Vienna said they had been held at a checkpoint before contact was lost, while a Turkish foreign ministry official said: “We have learnt through unofficial channels they are safe and sound.”
Monday’s air strikes represented the most forceful action yet by Kiev in its battle to crush a bloody rebellion that has raged in the coal and steel belt since early April, threatening to plunge the former Soviet state into all out civil war.
Its action also revived tensions between Kiev and Moscow, which had initially said it was ready to work with the new leader of its western neighbour.
In his first comments on Ukraine since Sunday’s election, the Kremlin said Putin called “for an immediate end to the military’s punitive operation in southeastern regions and the establishment of peaceful dialogue between Kiev and regional representatives”.
Poroshenko said Monday the military would press on with its offensive against the insurgents who now control about a dozen cities and towns in the east.
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