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Tense Standoff in Battle for Donetsk Airport

Both sides claim victory prematurely in battle for eastern Ukrainian airport. But are Russian troops waiting in the wings?
By Tova Dvorin
First Publish: 5/27/2014, 8:58 AM

Battles in the East of Ukraine. Illustration
Battles in the East of Ukraine. Illustration
Reuters

Ukrainian armed forces and pro-Russian militants continue to battle over a Donetsk airport Tuesday, despite announcements from both sides of an apparent victory. 

Rebels took Donetsk's Sergei Prokofiev airport Monday, just hours after the successful election announcement of Ukrainian "Chocolate King" Petro Poroshenko as president. 

Even as the fighting was getting under way, Poroshenko held a news conference in Kiev where he said the government's military offensive needed to be "quicker and more effective".

"The anti-terrorist operation should not last two or three months. It should last for a matter of hours," he said.

Poroshenko dismissed the possibility of negotiating with the armed militants. 

"They want to preserve a bandit state which is held in place by force of arms," he said. "These are simply bandits. Nobody in any civilized state will hold negotiations with terrorists."

The Ukrainian government said it sent jets to strafe the area, firing warning shots before eliminating specific terror targets. Paratroopers were then sent in to complete the coordinated takeover.

Later, three Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopter gunships fired rockets and cannon at the concrete and glass terminal, Reuters reports. The gunships fired at targets on the runway, throwing out decoy flares to draw out barricaded fighters.

The fighting did not end there, however, extending long into the night. 

"Fighting continues in the airport, with the use of planes and helicopters," separatist leader Denis Pushilin stated late Monday night. "It's a full-blown military standoff. I have no information on casualties. Our groups have destroyed one helicopter of the enemy."

Ukrinform news agency reported early Tuesday that a serious dent has been made in the fighting; Ukrainian troops have destroyed one of the rebel camps' few anti-aircraft guns.

Both sides have claimed that they have "reclaimed" the airport, CNN reports; the Ukrainian government has declared the fighting will resume at 9 am Tuesday.

Correspondents on the ground note that while Ukrainian military officials claimed to have "liberated" the airport in the early hours of Tuesday morning, trucks of rebel reinforcements appear to be moving toward the airport, and convoys of gunmen were spotted on the Russian side of the border, some 10 kilometers from Donetsk. 

landmark deal reached last month between Russia, the US and the European Union (EU) called for the separatists, who have been seizing government buildings in eastern Ukraine for several days, to disarm and stand down - in exchange for amnesty. 

The pro-Russian protesters have largely ignored the deal, however, claiming that the agreement does not apply to them.