DONETSK, Ukraine — The Ukrainian military staged an airborne assault and air attacks against pro-Russian separatists who seized the biggest airport in eastern Ukraine early Monday. But hours of gun battles left the strategic facility in dispute, and the fighting spread to city of Donetsk.
Even as ballots were being counted in Kiev after Ukraine’s historic presidential election, at least 10 Russian-made Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters landed troops at the airport early Monday afternoon, touching off a volley of rebel fire from automatic small arms and anti-aircraft weapons.
Later, helicopters fired rockets and cannon at anti-aircraft emplacements, a Reuters photographer reported.
Gun battles continued throughout the afternoon, but the insurgents appeared to hold on to the initiative. It took the Ukrainian military 11 hours to send in reinforcements, but it never blocked the sole road to the airport, over which insurgents twice sent additional troops.
In late afternoon, insurgents also occupied Donetsk’s main railway station after skirmishes that left one person dead in the crossfire, the Kyiv Post reported.
Insurgents stormed the 2-year-old Sergei Prokofiev airport at 3 a.m., meeting no resistance, said Dmitri Kossinov, spokesman for the airport authority. They occupied the new main terminal building and the surrounding grounds, but Ukrainian army forces based in the old terminal building just next door were able to maintain the airport perimeter. Photos posted on the Internet showed gun positions on the roof of the main terminal. By late Monday afternoon, insurgents had set up checkpoints on all roads leading to the airport.
City officials in Donetsk, who still are carrying out many of their duties despite the pro-Russian takeover, urged residents to stay indoors to avoid being caught in the fighting.
The capture of the international airport added to the enormous challenges facing billionaire “Chocolate King” Petro Poroshenko, who won Sunday’s elections in a landslide. The Ukrainian government maintained a studied silence about the embarrassing loss of control over a vital transportation facility — other than a terse announcement by the military of an “anti-terrorist operation” — but Poroshenko said he would demand a speed up in the operation.
Poroshenko told reporters in Kiev that he supported the ongoing “counter-terror” operation in eastern Ukraine but demanded that it be carried out in “hours,” not in “two or three months.”
And he said he would not negotiate with the insurgents.
“They are just murderers; they are just bandits; they are just killers; they are terrorists,” he said. “In no civilized country of the world does anybody negotiate with terrorists. We are a civilized country and we will fight for the trust of the people” of eastern Ukraine.
But Pavel Gubarev, the self-proclaimed governor of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” said the DPR controls the city of 1 million and the entire region, and he would hold no talks with Poroshenko unless it was government-to-government. Ukraine must accept that “we are an independent territory” and agree to withdraw its troops, he said.
The reason the DPR attacked the airport was to “rid it of these foreign units,” apparently a reference to the Ukrainian army. “All foreign troops must leave our territory,” he said. “If they don’t want to do it, we will help them.”
He said pro-Russians will fight to the last volunteer. “We are going to defend our freedom and our independence,” he said, citing the May 11 referendum, which he claimed 90 percent of the population supported.
“I repeat: for us, it’s a real patriotic war, a war for freedom,” he said.
Gubarev also announced a state of martial law in the region. He said the DPR would mobilize all men of fighting age and demand that all citizens provide food and lodging to fighters and publicly pledge their loyalty. He said a curfew would be imposed soon.
He appeared before a newly minted flag of the just announced “union” with the other pro-Russian insurgency in east Ukraine, the “Luhansk People’s Republic.” The two breakaway entities call themselves “Novorossiya,” or New Russia, the name for the territories laid claim to by Russia’s czars.
He said the territories that will be part of Novorossiya include a big swath of Ukraine running from northeast to southwest, taking in Luhansk and Donetsk in the east and Odessa in the west, as well as all points in between, including Crimea, which Russia annexed in March.
It may sound like a land grab fantasy on steroids, but Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s long maintained that Ukraine is not a real country, also speaks of “Novorossiya.” Gubarev said Novorossiya has just opened an embassy under that name in Moscow and has regular exchanges of information with the Russian foreign ministry.
Poroshenko struck a decidedly different tone in his first appearance after the official election results.
He offered a dialogue with the residents of eastern Ukraine, in which the central government would offer security guarantees, protection of their personal rights and the right to use Russian language “without limitations, including on an official level.”
And he offered to meet Putin in just weeks.
“Russia is our biggest neighbor, and because stopping the war and bringing peace to all Ukraine — bringing stability in the eastern part of Ukraine — would be impossible without the participation of Russia, most probably the meeting with Russian leadership will take place in the first half of June,” he said.
But he dismissed Russia’s seizing of the Crimean peninsula as completely illegal. “There is no international basis for the annexation of Crimea,” he said. “You must understand that with the annexation of Crimea the entire postwar system of global security has been destroyed.”