DONETSK, Ukraine — The eastern city of Donetsk was in turmoil Tuesday a day after government forces used fighter jets to stop pro-Russia separatists from taking over the airport. Dozens were reported killed and the mayor went on television to urge residents to stay indoors.
The city of 1 million was engulfed by fighting Monday when rebels moved to seize the airport, Ukraine’s second largest. They were repelled by government forces using combat jets and helicopter gunships. Associated Press journalists witnessed intensive gun fire throughout the day and into the night. Plumes of black smoke rose into the air and officials shut down Donetsk airport and nearby streets to traffic amid the fighting.
Donetsk mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko said 40 people, including two civilians, were killed in Monday’s fighting. Rebel leaders, meanwhile, said the deaths could reach up to 100.
The battles came as billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko claimed victory in Sunday’s presidential vote, which authorities in Kyiv had hoped would unify the deeply divided nation. Poroshenko, who is yet to be sworn in, has vowed to negotiate a peaceful end to the insurgency in the east, but also has called the separatists “Somali pirates” and promised he would stop them from sowing more chaos.
The bodies of about 30 insurgents were brought Tuesday to a hospital morgue in Donetsk, said Leonid Baranov of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, who was at the Kalinin morgue. The fighters had been wounded and were being transported to a hospital in a truck when it was shot up by government forces, Baranov said.
Baranov said up to 100 rebels were probably killed in Monday’s fighting, adding that many bodies had not been recovered because they were in areas under government control.
“As they (Ukrainian forces) are controlling the airport and the fight was there … we cannot right now identify exactly how many victims we have,” he said, adding that hundreds were also wounded in the fighting.
He said the morgue was too small to hold all the bodies and authorities were searching for refrigerator trucks pending identification of the dead.
AP journalists saw many dead bodies piled up at the Kalinin morgue but could not immediately count them or confirm Baranov’s statements.
Another Donetsk insurgent leader, Denis Pushilin, also said up to 100 people have been killed and asserted that up to half of them could be civilians, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Pushilin said government snipers were firing at people trying to evacuate the bodies. His comments also couldn’t be independently confirmed.
Early Tuesday, unidentified men stormed Donetsk’s main ice hockey arena and set it ablaze, according to the mayor’s office. The arena, owned by a local Ukrainian lawmaker, was to host the 2015 world championships.
By Tuesday morning, the Donetsk airport was under full government control, Ukraine’s acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said, adding that dozens of insurgents may have been killed but government forces did not suffer any casualties.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, meanwhile, said it had lost contact with one of its four-man monitoring teams in Donetsk on Monday evening. There was no immediate claim of responsibility but rebel groups have previously kidnapped OSCE monitors in Ukraine.
In the neighbouring Luhansk region, which like Donetsk has declared independence from the central government, the Ukrainian Border Guards Service said its officers repelled a group of gunmen who were trying to break through the border from Russia. It said one intruder was wounded and the border guards seized several vehicles loaded with Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket grenade launchers and explosives.
The interim government in Kyiv has pledged to press ahead with the operation against insurgents, which has angered residents, many of whom see the government as nationalists bent on repressing Russian speakers in the east.
Speaking at a televised government session on Tuesday, Vitaly Yarema, a deputy prime minister, said the “anti-terrorist operation” in eastern Ukraine will go on “until all the militants are annihilated.”
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov voiced strong concern Tuesday about the decision to intensify the military operation in the east and called for an immediate end to fighting.
Lavrov warned Poroshenko against trying to win a quick military victory before his inauguration, saying that it would be “unlikely to create favourable conditions for a hospitable welcome in the Donetsk region.” He promised that Russia will be Poroshenko’s “serious and reliable partner” if he moved to negotiate an end to hostilities.
Poroshenko, known for his pragmatism, supports building strong ties with Europe but also has stressed the importance of mending relations with Moscow. Upon claiming victory, he said his first step as president would be to visit the troubled east. He said he hoped Russia would support his efforts to bring stability and that he wanted to hold talks with Moscow.
Lavrov welcomed Poroshenko’s promise to negotiate with people in the east and said Moscow was ready for direct talks with Poroshenko — without the United States or the European Union as mediators.
But Ukraine’s acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Ukraine has no intention of talking to Russia directly.
“The government’s stance is unchanged: bilateral talks without the presence of the United States and the European Union do not seem possible under current conditions,” he said.
Moscow has denied accusations by the authorities in Kyiv and the West that it has fomented the insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March but has stonewalled the eastern insurgents’ appeal to join Russia.
Russia, however, has kept pushing for Ukraine to decentralize its government, which would give more power to the regions and allow Moscow to keep eastern Ukraine in its sphere of influence.