Rebels parade captured soldiers on Ukraine independence day

24th August 2014, Comments 0 comments

Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine paraded dozens of captured soldiers before a jeering crowd on Sunday in mockery of the country's Independence Day celebrations.

In the capital, the Ukrainian government had sought to boost morale and send a defiant message to the rebels with an upbeat military parade to mark the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Speaking to a crowd of thousands in the iconic Independence Square, known locally as the Maidan, President Petro Poroshenko decried Russian "aggression" and said he was "convinced that the battle for Ukraine, for independence, will be our success."

But the message was met with ridicule in the eastern rebel stronghold of Donetsk, where around 40 or 50 captured government soldiers were paraded through Lenin Square before a volatile crowd.

Onlookers shouted "Fascists! Fascists!", while others threw garbage and empty bottles at the prisoners, who walked with heads bowed and their hands behind their backs before being placed on two buses and taken to an unknown destination.

In the background were several tanks and artillery guns said to have been captured from the Ukrainian army.

- 'Return to 1930s' -

Ukraine and the West blame Russia for supporting the separatist insurgents still clinging on to territory after four months of fighting in the restive east.

"War has come to us from over the horizon where it was never expected," Poroshenko told the crowd in the Maidan, many of whom sported the blue and yellow national colours and traditional dress.

The president said some of the equipment rolling through Maidan, which included tanks and Grad missile systems -- controversial for the indiscriminate damage they have caused in the east -- would be sent straight back to the front lines after the display, the first in five years.

"In the 21st century, in the centre of Europe, there is a flagrant attempt to breach the border of a sovereign state without declaring war," he said.

"It is as if the world has returned to the 1930s, the eve of World War II."

Poroshenko pledged 40 billion hryvnias ($3 billion, 2.3 billion euros) to its cash-strapped army over the next three years for the purchase of warplanes, warships and helicopters. He called it "only the modest beginning" of the rebirth of the Ukrainian military.

- Hospital attacked -

Kiev's conflict with the pro-Russian rebels in the separatist regions of Lugansk and Donetsk has claimed more than 2,200 lives since April. There is mounting concern over civilian casualties as the government presses closer into the rebel's last redoubts.

A shell hit one of Donetsk's largest hospitals on Sunday, sending patients and staff fleeing to the basement.

"We heard explosions at 6:30 am, windows broke and doctors told us to leave our rooms to go down here," said one young man in the basement of the surgery ward, who added that he was a Ukrainian soldier injured earlier in the week and now awaiting a prisoner swap.

On Saturday shelling in Donetsk residential neighbourhoods killed six civilians, including a child.

Human rights organisations have said both sides of the conflict are guilty of using indiscriminate weapons and urged against locating military targets in urban areas.

- Putin talks -

Poroshenko is under pressure to forge some form of agreement with Russia's President Vladimir Putin when they meet alongside EU officials in Minsk on Tuesday.

Earlier this week Moscow set off alarm bells by driving in a convoy of more than 200 trucks in a unilateral aid mission to war-torn Lugansk, where people had been without power or communication for three weeks.

Kiev criticised the move as a "direct invasion" and said its border officials were kept away from checking the contents of most lorries amid fears the convoy would help bolster the rebels.

International monitors said on Saturday that the trucks had all returned to Russian territory, but Kiev accused them of looting valuable military equipment from a factory and smuggling it from the country.

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© 2014 AFP

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