Battle rages for Ukraine's main eastern airport

3rd October 2014, Comments 0 comments

Ukrainian forces clashed with pro-Russian insurgents for control of a strategic airport in the restive east Friday and traded blame over the death of a Swiss aid worker, four weeks into their shaky truce.

Heavy fighting engulfed the flashpoint transport hub north of Donetsk, with blasts echoing across the largest rebel-held city throughout the day, but its status remained in dispute.

Separatist fighters said they were in control of almost the entire facility, which includes an old terminal and a brand new one built at a cost of nearly $1 billion for the 2012 football European Championship.

The Ukrainian military confirmed that gunmen had briefly seized the first floor of the old building, but said they had since been pushed out, even though fighting continued.

The weeks-long battle for the prized but no longer operating airport, whose long runway could let the separatists land large planes, has been one of many violations of a Russia-backed ceasefire signed on September 5.

Since then, 71 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians -- and an undisclosed number of separatists -- have been killed across the Russian-speaking rustbelt, including a staff member of the Red Cross, whose office in Donetsk was hit Thursday.

Both Moscow and the separatist command pinned the blame on Ukrainian forces, which in turn accused the insurgents. Both sides have pelted Donetsk with long-range missiles that were developed in the Soviet era and are notoriously imprecise.

The five-month conflict has killed more than 3,200 people and despite repeated violations of the truce, Western leaders still view it as the only viable option for ending Europe's worst crisis in decades.

Pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko assured the weary nation Friday that he had "enough energy to stop this war," adding that "the enemy has made us stronger" despite the loss of 946 Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers since the start of hostilities in April.

- Russia reinforcing militias? -

In Donetsk, a half-deserted city that once had nearly a million residents and is all but completely controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Kiev's forces seemed to be hanging on by a thread after spending weeks holed up at the airport.

Separatist "prime minister" Alexander Zakharchenko told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency that his men controlled 95 percent of the sprawling structure -- all but one building.

A female rebel at a checkpoint about two kilometres east of the airport told AFP that clashes around the field had gone on uninterrupted since 7:00 am.

"We are controlling the main part of the airport, the Ukrainians are still in one building," she said.

"They (the Ukrainians) still hold two bunkers, we are fighting to take those," said another rebel.

The Ukrainian military argued Friday evening that its forces had repelled the attacks and were still "in control," also accusing Russia of supplying the militias with reinforcements.

"Our reconnaissance observed the arrival of considerable armour, heavy artillery and soldiers into this area," defence spokesman Andriy Lysenko said.

"Russian forces have moved a unit of unmanned aerial vehicles to the airport area for reconnaissance, which are operated by Russian specialists."

- Western fears -

Kiev and the rebels, who agreed on September 19 to withdraw heavy weapons from a 30-kilometre (18.6 miles) buffer zone along the eastern front line, have blamed each other for violating the deal.

Kiev has blamed the recent deaths in central Donetsk on rebel attempts to discredit the army, while the militias accused the Ukrainian military of hitting residential areas by using indiscriminate fire.

"Firing from (multiple rocket launcher) systems is not targeted. They simply hit a general area, along with everyone in it," Andrei Purgin, number two in the Donetsk separatist command, told AFP.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was "saddened and disturbed" by the Swiss aid worker's death, and the outgoing EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton called on all parties to ensure open access for aid workers.

But Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich openly sided with the rebels and called for a full investigation.

Ukraine meanwhile said it had struck a gas deliveries deal with Norwegian energy giant Statoil to help it cope with a months-long cut in Russian supplies.

Both Ukraine's state energy holding Naftogaz and Statoil refused to disclose the volumes or price of gas in the contract, reflecting the sensitivities around the move which threatens to infuriate Moscow.


© 2014 AFP

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