Ukrainian air force strikes pro-Russia rebels at Donetsk airport

Pro-Russia insurgents arrive near Donetsk's Sergei Prokofiev International Airport to reinforce separatist gunmen under fire by the Ukrainian air force.
(Vadim Ghirda / Associated Press)

Ukraine’s presumed president-elect, Petro Poroshenko, vowed Monday to bring an end to the armed confrontation with pro-Russia separatists in the east and Russia’s top diplomat responded with assurances that the Kremlin is “ready for dialogue.”

But hours later Ukrainian air force troops strafed the armed militants’ positions at the international airport in Donetsk in an attempt to halt their efforts to further disrupt transport and industry in the sprawling industrial Donbass area.

The attack from the air was likely to enrage Moscow, which had appealed for an immediate end to the Kiev government’s “anti-terrorist operation” that has sought, with limited success, to recover territory seized by the pro-Russia rebels over the past two months.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had responded positively to the apparent election of Poroshenko to lead Ukraine after a turbulent six months that has witnessed a grass-roots revolution, the ousting of former Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich, Russian military occupation and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory and the separatists’ seizure of a dozen towns and cities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

“We are ready for dialogue with Kiev representatives, with Petro Poroshenko,” Lavrov said after the billionaire candidate was projected to win the Ukrainian presidency with 56% of the votes cast Sunday.

But Lavrov warned the next leadership that fighting in the east had to cease if the two former Soviet republics were to make any progress in mending the damage to their relations inflicted by the Russian territorial aggression and the Ukrainian military’s feeble efforts to reassert Kiev’s control.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the so-called anti-terrorist operation did not end,” Lavrov said of the Kremlin’s insistence that Sunday’s election couldn’t be considered valid if violence was being waged against the Russian-speaking eastern regions. Failure to halt the operations now that Kiev has new leadership in sight “will be a huge mistake,” Lavrov warned.

Pro-Russia gunmen, who last week blocked rail transport through the regions they occupy, took over the main terminal of Sergei Prokofiev International Airport overnight, Ukrainian military officials said Monday. The government deployed helicopters to bring paratroops to retake control of the airport and sent truckloads of soldiers to secure the facility and its vicinity.

The modern glass-and-steel terminal was built just four years ago ahead of Donetsk’s 2012 hosting of a European soccer championship. Donetsk, a city of a million residents, is home to the Shakhtar soccer club, owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and the biggest employer in the mining and manufacturing area.

“Helicopters of the ATO [anti-terrorist operation] forces destroyed an anti-aircraft gun that terrorists mounted in the Donetsk airport,” spokesman Vladyslav Selezniov was quoted as saying by Kiev’s Ukrinform news agency.

Selezniov also denied what he said were reports of a Ukrainian helicopter having been shot down by the rebels.

The BBC carried video showing masked separatists arriving at the airport perimeter to reinforce the militants under fire. The airport was closed to commercial traffic on Sunday when the gunmen first took over the terminal. Other parts of the airport apparently remained under government control.

Poroshenko has said he will not negotiate with illegal armed groups but raised hopes for easing tensions in the east with his swift overture to Moscow. At a Monday morning news conference, he called for talks with Kremlin leaders, conceding that making peace with the militants in Donbass “will be impossible without the participation of Russia.”

Poroshenko said his first official trip as president would be to the Donbass region, the broad industrial belt extending from the Don River basin, and that he hoped to visit Moscow in the first half of June.

Assuming Poroshenko’s first-round victory projection from exit polls is validated by the final vote count, the presidential inauguration is tentatively set for June 15. Until then, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov remains head of state although Russian officials have dismissed him as illegitimate and “coup-appointed.”