Fierce fighting raged in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Sunday as tens of thousands of people gathered in the capital, Kiev, to light candles for peace.
President Petro Poroshenko appeared at the rally in Kiev's Independence Square with his wife, Maryna, both carrying posters reading: “I am Volnovakha.” The reference was to the eastern town where 13 civilians were killed and 16 wounded when a missile hit a passenger bus earlier this week.
Ukrainian authorities and leaders of the self-proclaimed pro-Russia republic of Donetsk blamed one another for the carnage as both continued to claim control over the shattered Sergei Prokofyev Airport in Donetsk, which has been the site of the most intense fighting since May.
On Friday and on Saturday, pro-Russia separatists claimed they had pushed out Ukrainian forces from both terminals of the airport. Russian television showed footage that appeared to substantiate that claim.
On Sunday, however, Poroshenko insisted that the tide had turned. “Overnight, our 'cyborgs' in the airport of Donetsk demonstrated valor, patriotism and heroism, setting an example of how Ukraine must be protected,” the president said in his speech. “We won't give away a shred of Ukrainian soil.”
"Cyborgs" is a popular name for Ukrainian defenders of the airport, reportedly given to them by their enemies for their ability to resist attacks and doggedly protect the site, which is said to have been so badly damaged as to leave little protection from bullets or shrapnel.
“We gave them a good hiding overnight,” Poroshenko told reporters after his speech. “We pushed them away from the airport.”
The price of the counterattack was heavy. Five Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 43 wounded over a 48-hour period, according to Poroshenko aide Yuri Biryukov, who was inside the airport over the weekend.
“We are firmly in control over most of the ground floor, whereas there are many spots of resistance in what is left of the second, third and fourth floors of the terminal,” Biryukov said in a phone interview from the airport. Automatic weapons fire and explosions could be heard in the background. “The atmosphere is hot in every sense of the word, but now the initiative is ours as our troops are dealing with over a dozen Chechen fighters locked in the basement without any chance to get away.”
Biryukov said more than 60 separatist fighters were killed and scores wounded, and that the separatists resorted to a smoke screen maneuver to retrieve their casualties from the site. He said the balance of forces had changed over the weekend with the arrival of fresh commando forces and at least 10 new T-64 tanks.
His comments could not be independently verified.
Andrei Purgin, a leader of pro-Russia separatists and the speaker of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic parliament, denied such heavy casualties but refrained from providing his own count. The separatists' official website said only 17 of their soldiers were wounded Sunday, and said the Ukrainian military suffered more than 100 dead or wounded.
Purgin, however, conceded that the separatists were no longer in control of the airport, which, he said, was “changing hands.”
He said the airport is “strategically on a hilltop that commands all of the city, and we need to capture it to prevent bombardments of the city by Ukrainian forces deployed at the airport. For Kiev, our airport has only symbolic meaning. For us, it is a matter of life and death and we will continue to fight for it.”
A leading Ukrainian defense expert, Yuri Butusov, agreed that the airport of Donetsk was a largely symbolic target.
“There is no tactical sense any more to hold on to the charred and twisted carcass of what used to be the finest airport in the country,” Butusov, editor in chief of Censor.net, said in an interview. He compared its symbolic weight, however, to the significance of Stalingrad for the Soviet Union in World War II.
"The loss of it would be taken by the society as the worst defeat in the conflict," he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement Sunday justifying the earlier attacks by the separatists at the airport, saying they came after Ukrainian forces killed "peaceful residents, including women and children."
“To halt these criminal activities, the forces of the Donetsk People's Republic took the airport under control, but Ukrainian troops with no regard for casualties among the civilian population unleashed a large-scale combat operation to retake this strategic object,” the statement said.
The armed conflict that has been raging in eastern Ukraine since April has already claimed more than 4,800 lives, left thousands wounded and prompted hundreds of thousands to leave their homes for safer regions in Ukraine and neighboring Russia.
“To give away the airport is to admit that we are not ready to fight, that we are ready to surrender,” Antonina Loginova, a 45-year-old saleswoman, said in an interview during the rally in Kiev. “This would mean that all sacrifices were in vain. This place is so symbolic for all of us now that the army needs to protect it to the last, although it could have long ago blown it up and left.”
Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and staff writer Loiko from Moscow.