Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed rebels have both claimed victory in a bitter battle for Donetsk airport as Moscow warned Ukraine of “irreversible consequences” if it continued to use force.
Video footage from a drone revealed the extent to which the airport has been reduced to a shattered ruin by a war that continues to defy all international attempts to bring it to an end, threatening regional security in eastern Europe.
Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, said government troops has been subjected to a “sharp increase” in the number of rebel attacks, while Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said yesterday the army had succeeded in “cleansing” rebels from the airport. He added that three soldiers had died and 66 had been wounded in the previous 24 hours.
But the rebels rebuffed accusations of defeat and instead claimed they had emerged victorious in the battle. “All attempts by the Ukrainian army to take the airport and to get revenge for the defeat of the last year have failed,” Alexander Zakharchenko, a rebel leader, said at a press conference in Donetsk.
Rebels also claimed around 200 Ukrainian troops had been either killed or wounded in recent fighting.
A shell from an undetermined source also struck a hospital in Donetsk yesterday, wounding a doctor and five patients, while as many as eight civilians in the town may have died from shelling in the past few days. The intense fighting comes despite a ceasefire agreement, signed in Minsk last September – which is still formally in place – and prompted Russia to issue a dire warning to its western neighbour.
Grigory Karasin, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said: “It’s the biggest, even strategic mistake of the Ukrainian authorities to bank on a military solution to the crisis in Ukrainian society and to all of south-east Ukraine’s problems.
“This can lead to irreversible consequences for Ukrainian statehood.”
Russia also accused Mr Poroshenko of failing to respond to a letter from Russian president Vladimir Putin suggesting both sides withdraw their heavy artillery as a way of patching up the battle-torn ceasefire agreement.
As Russia condemned Ukraine, Kiev claimed that 700 Russian troops, in two groups, had crossed the border to assist rebels fighting for control of territory in the south east, although there was no independent source to substantiate these claims.
Ukraine blames Moscow for orchestrating the war in an attempt to weaken and destabilise the country, and has made repeated accusations that the Kremlin has sent regular troops across the border and supplied rebels with equipment such as heavy artillery and tanks.
Kiev has demanded Russia pull back the 8,500 troops it claims Moscow has already deployed across the border, and that it reins in the rebel forces it regards as little more than the Kremlin’s proxies.
Moscow has denied direct involvement in the conflict, and has accused Kiev of triggering the violence by its alleged attempts to suppress the rights of people in eastern Ukraine, some of whom favour greater autonomy or independence.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday said sanctions imposed on Russia because of its Ukraine policy had to remain in place.
Martin Lidegaard, Denmark’s foreign minister, said the time was not right for the EU to “give up any sanctions or to send any signals that we are willing to do so, but … we should explore any possibility to find a political solution to this crisis”.
The United Nations estimates that about 4,800 people have now died in the war.