SABRINA TAVERNISE & ANDREW ROTH
Separatists reported suffering heavy losses in an offensive by the Ukrainian military to retake a strategic provincial airport in Donetsk, their leaders said on Tuesday, while a team of European security monitors lost contact with their headquarters, raising fears of kidnapping.
Some of the accounts of rebel losses were conflicting, in part because the fighting continued into Tuesday morning and it was difficult to retrieve the dead. Schools were closed and city authorities warned residents not to leave their homes.
The clearest count came from Donetsk’s mayor, Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, who said about 50 people had been killed, including two civilians, and that 43 others had been wounded. Other counts by rebels put the death toll as high as 100.
“Our losses are serious,” said Alexander Borodai, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. “But our opponents’ losses are not less, and maybe even more.”
The Ukrainian military conducted a major operation on Monday to take back the airport here, which militants had seized just hours before. It was the first aggressive move against the fighters in weeks of what had been seen as relatively ineffective military maneouvers and came just one day after a national election in which a Ukrainian billionaire, Petro O Poroshenko, won in a landslide. Poroshenko has pledged to take on the separatists, whom he has compared to Somali pirates.
A Ukrainian military spokesman in Kiev, Vladyslav Selezniov, said the military was now fully in control of the airport and its territory.
The monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was on a routine mission east of Donetsk when it disappeared around 6 pm on Monday, the group reported.
“We have been unable to re-establish communication until now,” the group said in a statement on its website. “We are continuing with our efforts and utilizing our contacts on the ground. The Ukrainian government as well as regional authorities have been informed of the situation.”
In Moscow, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V Lavrov, noting causalities on both sides, said “they have a real war there so far”.