DONETSK, UKRAINE — Scores of pro-Russian separatist fighters stormed the Donetsk airport in eastern Ukraine Monday morning, prompting government forces to respond with airstrikes, helicopter attacks and an assault by paratroopers.
The renewed violence came in the wake of Sunday’s election, in which billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko emerged as the likely winner. As the battle in Donetsk was heating up, Poroshenko was at a news conference in Kyiv, calling for “quicker and more effective” government military offensives.
Poroshenko had said his first trip as president would be to the restive east. The rebels’ attempt to seize Sergei Prokofiev International Airport may have been intended to prevent Poroshenko from travelling to Donetsk, a city that rebels have named as the seat of an independent “people’s republic.”
By early afternoon, black smoke had drifted over the airport. Jets circled overhead, dropping flares to stop rebel fighters targeting them with their portable anti-aircraft missiles.
Dangerously close to action
Our VOA news team got as close to the fighting as the airport’s perimeter, where a food kiosk inexplicably still was open. When the kiosk came under fire, with bullets clanging off the roof, we left.
On the road from the airport, we had expected to reconnect with other journalists but discovered, in their place, a large group of rebel fighters who had taken up defensive positions by the road. Many of the fighters had dark hair and complexions and Muslim clothing.
This reporter recognized one of the armed men from an incident several days earlier, when that man and another had forcibly shut down a polling station in Donetsk before Sunday’s election.
Rebel re-enforcements arrived near the airport and the men took up positions in the trees. Groups of civilians also began to flee the area, some seeming unable to comprehend what was happening.
Suddenly, a Ukrainian helicopter took off and roared over the heads of the rebel fighters, who responded with a storm of small-arms fire. More helicopters circled, attracting wild shooting from the separatists. Bullets whistled overhead.
When it became clear the Ukrainian helicopters were marking rebel positions for airstrikes, the VOA news team left the area.
Reinforcements for rebels
Farther back, police had blockaded the road, allowing only trucks full of armed separatists through to reinforce their comrades.
Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Selezynov said an Su-25 fighter jet fired warning shots before a MiG-29 fighter jet carried out an air strike. Later Monday, witnesses reported that Ukrainian Mi-24 attack helicopters also fired on the rebels.
There was no immediate confirmed report on damage or casualties.
Reuters reported that, at a news conference Monday in Donetsk, separatist leader Denis Pushilin called the fighting “a full-blown military standoff. I have no information on casualties. Our groups have destroyed one helicopter of the enemy."
Fighting continued late into the evening, spreading to nearby residential neighborhoods.
Despite weeks of violence in eastern Ukraine, many Donetsk residents have been able to carry out their daily routines. Now, some say, apprehension is growing.
Reuters contributed to this report.