A baptism of fire for new Ukrainian president

Mr Poroshenko has said he will not talk to terrorists but would engage in dialogue with Russia. Picture: Reuters
Mr Poroshenko has said he will not talk to terrorists but would engage in dialogue with Russia. Picture: Reuters
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FIERCE fighting between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian separatists overshadowed the president-elect’s first speech in which he pledged to end the crisis facing his country.

Kiev launched air strikes and dropped paratroopers close to Donetsk International Airport after it was seized by militants.

Helicopter gunships mounted a heavy attack on the recently-built terminal yesterday afternoon, peppering the building with cannon fire as militants fired back from the ground.

Black smoke billowed over the airport as the assault continued last night.

Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for Kiev’s anti-terrorist operation, said the military had given an ultimatum to the armed men who had occupied the airport yesterday to lay down their arms. He said the gunmen did not comply and the military launched the assault.

Denis Pushilin, a leader of the separatists, said they had sent their men to the airport after some of their supporters were detained.

Earlier, chocolate tycoon and president-elect Petro Poroshenko pledged to restore control over the separatist east. Moscow said it was ready for dialogue with the 48-year-old but that he should scale back a campaign by armed forces in the east, where pro-Moscow gunmen have declared independence in two provinces.

Ukrainians rallied overwhelmingly in Sunday’s election behind Mr Poroshenko, a billionaire owner of chocolate factories and political veteran.

They hope the stocky businessman can rescue the nation from the brink of bankruptcy, civil war and dismemberment.

Preliminary results with about half of votes counted gave Mr Poroshenko 53.7 per cent – easily beating a field of 21 candidates with enough to avoid a second stage run-off.

His closest challenger, former premier Yulia Tymoshenko,, secured just 13.1 per cent and made it clear she would concede.

Mr Poroshenko said yesterday that his most urgent task is to come to an agreement with Russia, which has seemed poised to carve Ukraine up since pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in a popular revolt in February.

Russia responded by seizing the Crimea peninsula, massing troops on the border and expressing sympathy with armed separatists.

Mr Poroshenko said he was ready to talk to pro-Moscow rebels who lay down their arms, but would not meet with “terrorists”.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov repeated a weekend promise by president Vladimir Putin that Moscow would respect the will of Ukrainians. He added that Moscow was ready for dialogue but Kiev should not step up its military campaign.

In the eastern Donbass coalfield, where militants shut polling stations cutting off around 10 per cent of the national electorate from the vote, rebels scoffed at the “fascist junta” and said they would cleanse their “people’s republic” of “enemy troops”.

So far, Ukraine’s military has had little success against the rebels. More than 20 people were killed in the region last week.