At least 30 bodies of killed fighters have been brought to a hospital following a day of heavy fighting in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, in which government forces used combat jets against pro-Russia rebels, an insurgent said Tuesday.
The rebel fighter, who wouldn’t give his name because of security concerns, said outside the hospital in Donetsk that 30 bodies of his fellow insurgents were delivered there. He said the truck carrying the bodies was still parked outside the hospital, waiting for explosives experts to check it for any unexploded ordnance.
Donetsk, a city of 1 million, was engulfed by heavy fighting Monday when rebels moved to seize the airport, Ukraine’s second largest, and were repelled by government forces using combat jets and helicopter gunships. Associated Press journalists witnessed sustained intensive gun fire throughout the day and into the night. Plumes of black smoke rose in the air.
The battles came just as billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko claimed victory in Sunday’s presidential vote. Poroshenko, who is yet to be sworn in, has vowed to negotiate a peaceful end to an insurgency in the east, where rebels have seized government offices and fought Ukrainian troops for more than a month.
Officials closed Donetsk airport and police shut nearby streets for traffic amid the fighting. The city mayor went on television advising residents to stay at home.
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Early Tuesday, a group of unidentified men stormed Donetsk’s main ice-hockey arena, which was to host the 2015 world championships and set it ablaze, according to the mayor’s office.
In the neighboring Luhansk region, the Ukrainian Border Guards Service said that its officers engaged in a gunbattle with a group of gunmen who were trying to break through the border from Russia. It said one intruder was wounded and the border guards seized several vehicles loaded with Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket grenade launchers and explosives.
The interim government has pledged to press ahead with the operation against insurgents, which has angered local residents, many of whom see the authorities in Kiev as nationalists bent on repressing Russian speakers in the east.
Speaking at a televised government session on Tuesday, Vitaly Yarema, a deputy prime minister in the interim cabinet said the “anti-terrorist operation” in eastern Ukraine will go on “until all the militants are annihilated.”
Poroshenko has described the separatists as “Somali pirates,” saying that arms should be used against “killers and terrorists,” but he also indicated that he wants a quick end to the military operation in the east.
“The anti-terrorist operation cannot and should not last two or three months,” he said Monday. “It should and will last hours.”
Poroshenko, known for his pragmatism, supports building strong ties with Europe but also has stressed the importance of mending relations with Moscow. Upon claiming victory, he said his first step as president would be to visit the east.
He said he hoped Russia would support his efforts to bring stability and that he wanted to hold talks with Moscow.
Russia welcomed his intention to engage in talks with people in the east and said it would be ready to work with Poroshenko.
Moscow has denied accusations by the Ukrainian interim government and the West that it has fomented the insurgency in the east. Russian President Vladimir Putin has stonewalled the insurgents’ appeal to join Russia and welcomed the Ukrainian presidential election in an apparent bid to de-escalate tensions with the West, which has plunged to a post-Cold War low after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that Moscow was ready for direct talks with Poroshenko and doesn’t want the United States and the European Union as mediators.
But Ukraine’s acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that Ukraine has no intention to talk to Russia directly. “Regarding the negotiations with the Russian Federation, the government’s stance is unchanged: bilateral talks without the presence of the United States and the European Union do not seem possible under current conditions,” he said.
Russia has kept pushing for Ukraine to decentralize its government, which would give more power to regions, including those in the east, and wants Kiev to withdraw its troops from the area.