A truck with armed pro-Russian militants drives through a
police check-point towards the airport of the eastern
Ukrainian city of Donetsk. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
Ukraine launched air strikes and a paratrooper assault
against pro-Russian rebels who seized an airport, as its newly
elected leader rejected any talks with "terrorists" and said a
robust military campaign in the east should be able to put down
a separatist revolt in "a matter of hours".
Ukrainians rallied overwhelmingly in Sunday's election behind
Petro Poroshenko, a political veteran and billionaire owner
of chocolate factories, hoping the burly 48-year-old can
rescue the nation from the brink of bankruptcy, civil war and
dismemberment by its former Soviet masters in the Kremlin.
Monday's rapid military response to separatists who seized
the airport in Donetsk was a defiant answer to Moscow, which
said it was ready for dialogue with Poroshenko but demanded
he first scale back the armed forces' campaign in the east.
Even as the fighting was getting under way, Poroshenko held a
news conference in Kiev where he said the government's
military offensive needed to be "quicker and more effective".
"The anti-terrorist operation should not last two or three
months. It should last for a matter of hours," he said.
As for the rebel fighters: "They want to preserve a bandit
state which is held in place by force of arms," he said.
"These are simply bandits. Nobody in any civilised state will
hold negotiations with terrorists."
Gunfire and explosions could be heard as a warplane flew over
Donetsk's Sergei Prokofiev International Airport, hours after
truckloads of armed rebel fighters arrived and seized a
terminal. Thick black smoke rose from within the perimeter.
The government said its jets had strafed the area with
warning shots and then struck a location where rebels were
concentrated, scattering the fighters before paratroops were
flown in to face them.
Eight hours after it began, fighting was continuing after
nightfall and had spread to residential neighbourhoods
"Fighting continues in the airport, with the use of planes
and helicopters," said separatist leader Denis Pushilin.
"It's a full-blown military standoff. I have no information
on casualties. Our groups have destroyed one helicopter of
At one point, three Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopter gunships fired
rockets and cannon at the concrete and glass terminal. More
plumes of black smoke shot up into the air as the helicopters
fired at targets on the runway. The gunships threw out decoy
flares as fighters shot at them from the ground.
The airport serves a city of 1 million people that the rebels
have proclaimed capital of an independent "people's
republic", and where they succeeded in blocking all voting in
Their attempt to seize the airport may have been intended to
prevent Poroshenko from travelling there: he has said his
first trip in office would be to visit the restive east.
Russia's foreign ministry urged Kiev to halt what it called
"military operations against its own people" and said it
wanted the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in
Europe to investigate clashes with pro-Russian separatists in
Pushilin called for "any available help from the Russian
Preliminary results, with 80 percent of the vote counted,
gave Poroshenko 54.1 percent of the vote - towering over a
field of 21 candidates with enough support to avert a
run-off. His closest challenger, former premier Yulia
Tymoshenko, had just 13.1 percent and made clear she would
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told
reporters in Sarajevo he was glad no run-off would be
required and that people would have to respect the new
president's legitimacy. He also acknowledged Poroshenko had
his work cut out to heal Ukraine's regional divide.
"The doors are open to him, but there is no political
paradise awaiting," he said. "He will have to bridge a gap
between the country's east and west, and I sincerely hope
that he will be able to do so."
Poroshenko's most urgent task is finding a modus vivendi with
the giant neighbour that has seemed poised to carve Ukraine
up since mass protests in Kiev toppled a pro-Russian
president in February.
Sorting out a dispute over the supply of Russian gas to
Ukraine will also be high on the agenda.
Poroshenko said Moscow's "argument about legitimacy has
disappeared" as he had also topped the polls among those who
were able to cast ballots in the eastern regions of Donetsk
"I hope Russia will support efforts to tackle the situation
in the east," Poroshenko said. He said he planned to meet
Russian officials in the first half of June.
But he showed no sign of heeding Moscow's demand that he call
off the operation against rebels in the east.
"Protecting people is one of the functions of the state," he
said, promising to invest more in the army. "The Ukrainian
soldier should no longer be naked, barefoot and hungry."
So far, Ukraine's military forces have had little success
against rebels who have declared independent "people's
republics" in two provinces of the eastern industrial
heartland where about 20 people have been killed in recent
Ukrainian officials say they have held back from using full
force in part to avoid provoking an invasion from tens of
thousands of Russian troops massed on the frontier. Questions
have also been raised about Ukrainian forces' training,
equipment and loyalties.
Monday's fighting began after a Reuters photographer saw
three truckloads bring dozens of armed men to the airport.
"The rebels are in the terminal. The rest of the airport is
controlled by the Ukrainian national guard," airport
spokesman Dmitry Kosinov told Reuters before gunfire broke
The Ukrainian joint forces security operation in the region
said a deadline for the rebels to surrender expired and two
Sukhoi Su-25 jets carried out strafing runs, firing warning
shots. A MiG-29 jet later carried out another air strike.
The militants then spread out across the territory of the
airport, whose state-of-the-art main terminal was built for
the 2012 European soccer championships held in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last month described
eastern Ukraine as "New Russia", has made more accommodating
noises in recent days. He promised at the weekend that Moscow
would respect the will of Ukrainians, and Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov repeated that promise on Monday in saying
Russia was ready for dialogue with Poroshenko.
Western countries put little faith in Putin's promises,
saying he has repeatedly announced he would pull troops from
the frontier without doing so. They dismiss Russia's denials
it has aided the rebels, whose Donetsk force is led by a
moustachioed Muscovite the EU says is a Russian military
But Poroshenko's victory could ease pressure for extending
sanctions against Russia when EU government leaders meet in
Brussels on Tuesday evening.
"We are not going to go forward on this for the moment," one
senior EU diplomat told reporters on Monday.
Even though separatists ensured that millions of Ukrainians
were unable to vote in the eastern regions, Poroshenko's
sweeping margin of victory gives him a firm mandate that
makes it harder for Moscow to dismiss him as illegitimate, as
it did in the case of the interim leaders he will replace.
Many Ukrainians clearly rallied behind the frontrunner as a
way to demonstrate national unity, three months after a
pro-Russian president was ousted in a popular revolt and
Moscow responded by seizing the Crimea peninsula, massing
troops on the frontier and expressing sympathy with armed
A veteran survivor of Ukraine's feuding political class,
Poroshenko has served in cabinets led by figures from both
sides of Ukraine's pro- and anti-Russian divide, giving him a
reputation as a pragmatist who can bridge differences. That
could shield him from the accusations of strident nationalism
Moscow aimed at the interim leaders.
He threw his weight and money behind the revolt that brought
down his Moscow-backed predecessor in February and campaigned
on a platform of strengthening ties with Europe.
Yet it remains unclear how the tycoon can turn firmly
westward as long as Russia, Ukraine's major market and vital
energy supplier, seems determined to maintain a hold over the
second most populous ex-Soviet republic.
"He has taken a heavy burden on his shoulders," said Larisa,
a schoolteacher who was among crowds watching the results on
Independence Square, where pro-Western "EuroMaidan" protests
ended in bloodshed in February that prompted President Viktor
Yanukovich to flee to Russia. "I just want all of this to be
over. I think that's what everybody wants."