Ukraine’s military said on Monday it had pulled its forces back from defending a vital airport in the east against Russian tanks, as President Petro Poroshenko accused Moscow of “direct and open aggression”.
The withdrawal from the civilian airport outside the city of Luhansk was the latest in a string of reverses for Ukrainian forces fighting pro-Russian separatists who Kiev says have the direct support of hundreds of Russian troops and armour.
A military statement said Ukrainian paratroopers were engaging a Russian tank battalion near the airport. A while later spokesman Andriy Lysenko said: “In the Luhansk direction, Ukrainian forces have received an order and have pulled back from the airport.”
Poroshenko, speaking at a military academy in Kiev, said Russia’s direct involvement in Kiev’s war against the separatists in eastern Ukraine had tipped the balance on the battlefield and was the main reason for recent setbacks.
“Direct and open aggression has been launched against Ukraine from a neighbouring state. This has changed the situation in the zone of conflict in a radical way,” he said.
Moscow denies helping the rebels, who have set up “people’s republics” in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine and say they want to be part of “Russian world” rather than a country which seeks integration into mainstream Europe.
“According to our operational data, there are no fewer than four (Russian) battalion-tactical groups in Ukraine,” Lysenko told reporters. Each one comprised 400 men, he said.
Separatists, who Kiev says were backed by a Russian armoured column, took the town of Novoazovsk in the southeast last week and are now threatening the strategic port city of Mariupol 40 km to the west.
Their seizure of part of the coastline provided them with a vantage point from which to shell a coastguard patrol boat in the Sea of Azov on Sunday, sinking it — the first action at sea in the conflict.
Two members of the crew are missing while eight were rescued and are being treated for burns and other injuries.
Concern is mounting in Kiev over the fate of several hundred Ukrainian troops encircled for days in Ilovaysk, east of the region’s biggest town of Donetsk.
Kiev’s military has imposed an information clampdown on what is happening in Ilovaysk region until its forces have been successfully withdrawn.
UK PM Cameron says Russian troops in Kiev ‘unacceptable’
LONDON: The presence of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil is “unjustified and unacceptable”, British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday. “Russia appears to be trying to force Ukraine to abandon its democratic choices at the barrel of a gun,” Cameron told parliament, warning Moscow its relationship with the rest of the world would be “radically different” in future if it continued with its current policy on Ukraine. Reuters