Air strikes and gun battles at airport now Ukraine's frontline
DONETSK, Ukraine – The rattle of heavy machine gunfire, the thud of explosions and the plumes of black smoke billowing into the sky as fighter jets fire from overhead -- Ukraine's new frontline has opened. (READ: Airport in Donetsk shut after rebel raid)
The battle at the airport in the main eastern rebel-held city of Donetsk on May 26, Monday, marked a dramatic new phase in the government's offensive against pro-Russian separatists.
The fierce confrontation erupted after Ukrainian oligarch Petro Poroshenko, who claimed victory in Sunday's crucial presidential election, vowed he would not let the separatists turn the east into another Somalia. (READ: Poroshenko's statement regarding airport attack)
Scores of gunmen stormed the airport early Monday in an apparent show of defiance after the election, which was rejected as illegitimate by the rebels who thwarted polling in large parts of the east under their control.
Military spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashyvskiy said the army had launched an "anti-terror" operation after the expiry of an ultimatum for the insurgents to leave.
The army then sent in the heavy firepower -- Mi-8 helicopters filled with paratroopers, along with SU-25 fighter jets and MiG-29s -- to "force the terrorists to meet our demands," said another spokesman.
An Agence France-Presse correspondent said Ukrainian helicopters hit the main terminal building, which underwent a massive $900 million refurbishment for the 2012 European football championships.
All flights were halted out of the airport, which was evacuated and sealed off after gunmen claiming to be from the self-declared "Donetsk People's Republic" showed up overnight demanding that Ukrainian troops guarding the perimeter be withdrawn.
'Suddenly two explosions'
The last scheduled plane allowed to leave was the 7:00 am (0400 GMT) flight to Kiev.
"We do not know when we will be up working again," airport spokesman Dmytro Kosinov said.
An Agence France-Presse journalist saw three military trucks with scores of well-armed men in camouflage, some wearing pro-Russian ribbons and others with Cossack hats and beards, driving towards the airport through a traffic police checkpoint a few hundred meters from the main terminal.
"It was quiet and then suddenly two explosions and then another two -- they seemed like they had been fired from a plane," said Maksim Bakhal, a worker at a cemetery on the edge of the airport.
"Then three helicopters flew over and they were shooting at them with machine guns," he said. "Then there was shooting from all sides -- with heavier weapons and cannons."
Separatists in the heavily-Russified eastern rust belt of the ex-Soviet nation launched an insurgency against Kiev's rule in early April.
They have since seized about a dozen cities and towns in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions neighboring Russia, and blocked voting across much of the area on Sunday.
Poroshenko, who is expected to be formally declared president after results showed him with a resounding win, said there would be no let-up in efforts to crush the rebels but that the operation would be "more efficient".
He accused the militants of wanting to turn the region of nearly seven million people "into Somalia" and refused to open dialogue until they laid down their arms.
He said he planned to make the Donbass his first point of call after he takes over, but the insurgents say he is not welcome.
"The situation is getting worse on the ground, so it's not very smart of Poroshenko to want to come here, because people don't want to see him," said one Donetsk rebel leader Denis Pushilin.
"A dialogue is possible but only in the presence of mediators and the only possible mediator is Russia," he said, adding that the separatists had a number of conditions including a prisoner swap and withdrawal of troops from the Donbass.
There was also little love lost for Poroshenko on the streets of Donetsk.
"The people of Kiev, who have been killing innocent civilians in the south and east, who cares who they choose as president," said an enraged Galina as she handed out newspapers near a regional administration building now overrun by rebels.
"We've got nothing to do with them anymore. We've got our own new republic in Donetsk." – Rappler.com