DONETSK, Ukraine — Ukraine’s president-elect said Monday he wants to begin talks with Moscow and end a pro-Russia insurgency in the east, but the rebels escalated the conflict by occupying a major airport, and the government in Kyiv responded with an airstrike.
As darkness fell in Donetsk, a city of about 1 million, it was unclear who was in control of the airport. Hundreds of fighters of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic had been brought by trucks to a wooded area on the fringes of the airport, many of them armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and automatic rifles. At least one warplane streaked over the city, firing flares, and explosions were heard from the direction of the airport.
The rebels, who declared independence for Donetsk and the neighbouring Luhansk region after a hastily called and dubious referendum two weeks ago, regarded Sunday’s election of candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko as president to be illegitimate.
In a victory speech, the billionaire promised to open a dialogue with residents of eastern Ukraine and to guarantee their rights. The rebels and many others in the region say they fear the February ouster of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych will lead to the repression of its predominantly Russian-speaking population by Ukrainian nationalists.
Poroshenko also said he would not negotiate with armed insurgents that he calls terrorists.
“Peace can only be achieved through a dialogue with people,” he said Monday. “This process cannot be stopped with the use of arms only; arms can be used exclusively against killers and terrorists.”
Russia has heavily criticized an offensive by Ukraine’s military against the rebels, and Poroshenko indicated he wants it to end quickly.
“The anti-terrorist operation cannot and should not last two or three months,” he said. “It should and will last hours.”
But aggression by rebels, as at the Donetsk airport, could make it impossible for Ukrainian forces to back off.
News reports said scores of armed insurgents descended on the airport about 3 a.m., and all flights were cancelled. Heavy gunfire broke out, Ukrainian fighter jets and helicopters flew overhead, and dense black smoke rose in the air.
Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian operation, wrote on his Facebook account that the military had given an ultimatum to the gunmen occupying the airport to disarm. They didn’t comply, he said, and the military launched an airstrike.
Denis Pushilin, a leader of the separatists, said they sent their men to the airport after some of their supporters were detained, but news reports cited the airport’s press service as saying the insurgents were demanding Ukrainian forces be withdrawn from around the facility.
Donetsk news outlets, citing an unidentified health official, reported that two people were injured and one person killed by gunfire at the city’s main train station. In Slovyansk, a city about 100 kilometres (60 miles) to the north that has seen sustained clashes, an Associated Press reporter saw the bodies of an elderly woman and a young man following mortar fire from a government position.
Sunday’s presidential balloting was praised by international observers as a “genuine election,” saying it was held freely and fairly.
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 east.
He said he hoped Russia would support his efforts to bring stability and that he wanted to hold talks with Moscow.
Russia denies allegations that it supports or directs the insurgents. But Russia is pushing for Ukraine to decentralize its government, which would give more power to the regions including the east, and wants Kyiv to withdraw its troops from the area. Russia massed its troops near the Ukrainian border, but President Vladimir Putin said last week that those forces were being pulled back to their home bases.
After Russia annexed the southern region of Crimea from Ukraine in March, many Ukrainians feared Moscow wanted to invade the east.
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia appreciated Poroshenko’s statements about the importance of Ukraine’s ties with Russia and his pledge to negotiate an end to the fighting.
“We are ready for dialogue with representatives of Kyiv, with Petro Poroshenko,” Lavrov said at a briefing, adding it was a chance that “cannot be wasted.” He emphasized that Moscow saw no need for any involvement by the U.S. or the European Union in those talks.
“We don’t need any mediators,” he said pointedly.
The rebels had vowed to block the election in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and more than 80 per cent of the polling stations were closed there after gunmen intimidated residents by smashing ballot boxes, shutting down voting centres and issuing threats.
But nationwide, about 60 per cent of Ukraine’s 35.5 million eligible voters turned out, and long lines were reported at polling stations in the capital.
Joao Soares, special co-ordinator for the OSCE observer mission in Kyiv, hailed the vote and the “clear resolve of the authorities, which resulted in a genuine election largely in line with international commitments.”
“Ukrainian authorities should be commended for their efforts in the extraordinary circumstances to facilitate an election” which was held in parts of Ukraine’s volatile east, Soares said.
He said monitors saw multiple threats, intimidation and abduction of election officials in the east.
With votes from 75 per cent of the precincts counted, Poroshenko was leading with about 54 per cent in the field of 21 candidates. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was running a distant second with 13 per cent. If those results hold, Poroshenko would avoid a runoff election next month. Authorities said official results would be announced by June 5.