The incident came hours after Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, had announced an “anti-terrorist operation” against the armed, pro-Russian insurgents who had seized control of numerous buildings in at least nine cities in Ukraine’s restive east.
The central government has so far been unable to rein in the insurgents, who it says are being stirred up by paid operatives from Russia.
The insurgents are demanding broader autonomy and closer ties with Russia and, complicating the political landscape, many local security forces have switched to their side.
Yesterday’s clashes came at Kramatorsk airport, just south of the city of Slovyansk, 100 miles from the Russian border. The city has come under the increasing control of the gunmen who seized it last weekend.
The precise sequence of events in Kramatorsk was mired in confusion amid contradictory official claims.
Ukraine’s security services anti-terrorist chief, General Vasyl Krutov, speaking outside Kramatorsk airport, said his men managed to thwart an attack by fighters in green military uniforms without insignia who tried to storm the facility in the late afternoon.
One international reporter and camera crew at the airport heard gunfire at the time.
There were conflicting reports of casualties. Yury Zhadobin, co-ordinator of a pro-Russian defence force, said two people were slightly injured and taken to a hospital. Russian media, without sourcing, claimed anywhere from four to 11 casualties at the airport. Ukraine government said there were no casualties.
In an attempt to defuse the stand-off, Gen Krutov came out to speak to the crowd picketing the airport but was attacked.
While he spoke of repelling an attack, the new government in Kiev declared that its forces had recaptured the airport from militiamen.
“I just got a call from the Donetsk region: Ukrainian special forces have liberated the airport in the city of Kramatorsk from terrorists,” Mr Turchynov told parliament. “I’m convinced that there will not be any terrorists left soon in Donetsk and other regions and they will find themselves in the dock.”
What was clear is that the area bordering Russia is getting increasingly unstable. Russia has tens of thousands of troops stationed along the border, which western officials say is adding to the region’s instability.
Earlier yesterday, eyewitnesses said they saw at least 14 armoured personnel carriers with Ukrainian flags, helicopters and military trucks parked 40 kilometres (24 miles) north of the city. Other heavy military equipment appeared nearby, along with at least seven busloads of government troops in black military fatigues.
“We are awaiting the order to move on Slovyansk,” said one soldier, who gave only his first name, Taras.
Two of the helicopters loaded with troops were later seen flying toward Slovyansk. Witnesses said helicopters delivered several dozen troops to the Kramatorsk military airfield.
Ukraine’s ex-prime minister and presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko said what Kiev was seeing in the country’s east was in effect a war. “We have to tell the Ukrainians the truth: the Russian Federation is waging a real war against Ukraine in the east, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in particular,” she said.
She called on the West to “recognise Russia’s aggression against eastern Ukraine as a war”.
Ukrainian deputy prime minister Vitaly Yarema also accused Russia of sending its troops to Ukraine, saying Kiev has “evidence that those people occupying Slovyansk and Kramatorsk right now are servicemen of the Russian 45th Airborne Regiment”.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin, dismissed all those claims as absurd.
Russia strongly warned Kiev against using force against the pro-Russian protesters, saying that could prompt Moscow to walk out of tomorrow’s international conference on Ukraine in Geneva.
“You can’t send in tanks and at the same time hold talks. The use of force would sabotage the opportunity offered by the four-party negotiations in Geneva,” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said.