UK & World News

  • 27 May 2014, 5:06

Ukraine Helicopters Strike Rebel-Held Airport

Ukrainian government helicopters have launched an unprecedented airstrike against pro-Russian rebels who seized an airport terminal in the eastern city of Donetsk, with reports of civilian casualties.

Thick black smoke was seen billowing from Sergei Prokofiev International Airport after helicopter gunships fired rockets and cannons.

According to the Mayor of Donetsk, Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, several civilians were killed in the ensuing clashes, which are reported to have spread into residential areas.

Separatist leader Denis Pushilin said: "Fighting continues in the airport, with the use of planes and helicopters.

"It's a full-blown military standoff. I have no information on casualties. Our groups have destroyed one helicopter of the enemy."

The leader of the Donetsk People's Republic issued an appeal to Russia for help to deal with the latest developments which he said are "unfolding so fast and so aggressively."

Residents in the city have been urged to stay at home.

The government assault, considered the most forceful action taken so far against pro-Russian rebels, came just hours after Ukrainian billionaire Petro Poroshenko claimed victory in the presidential elections.

His government said the military fired warning shots over the airport after an ultimatum for the insurgents to leave expired.

It then deployed Mi-8 helicopters filled with paratroopers, along with SU-25 fighter jets and MiG-29s to strike the terminal and the runway.

Rebel fighters shot back at the helicopters from the ground. 

The airstrike came in defiance of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's earlier warning against an intensified armed operation targeting the separatists.

In response the Russian Foreign Ministry called on Kiev to end what it described as a military operation against its own people.

It called on the OSCE (the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) to provide detailed information on the attack.

Truckloads of armed fighters seized the complex earlier on Monday in a possible effort to prevent the president-elect travelling to Ukraine's east. 

Confectionery tycoon Mr Poroshenko - nicknamed the Chocolate King - said his first official trip would be to the restive region where separatists have declared an independent "people's republics" in two areas. 

The swift government response could be a sign of things to come, with the newly-appointed president declaring that a military campaign in the east should be able to suppress "terrorists" within hours. 

As fighting was getting under way in Donetsk, Mr Poroshenko held a news conference in the capital in which he said the anti-terrorist operation should not last two or three months, it should last a matter of hours.

He promised to invest more in the army, saying: "The Ukrainian soldier should no longer be naked, barefoot and hungry."

Mr Poroshenko also ruled out negotiations with "bandits" who he said want to preserve a "bandit state".

He claimed outright victory in Sunday's national election despite separatists closing polling stations in the east, preventing some 10% of the national electorate from voting.

Preliminary results suggest he won 54% of the vote, beating his closest rival, former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, who secured just 13.1%.

Russia has promised to respect the will of Ukrainians, saying it is ready to hold direct talks with the new president. 

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