DONETSK, Ukraine, (Reuters) – Relative calm returned to the streets of Donetsk yesterday after the biggest battle of the pro-Russian separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine, a conflict transformed by the landslide election of a pro-European leader who vowed to crush the revolt.
Reuters reporters heard sounds of distant gunfire coming from the south of the city and local media reported brief outbreaks of fighting on the outskirts, although this could not be independently confirmed.
However, this appeared minor compared with on Monday and Tuesday when government forces killed dozens of rebel fighters in an assault to retake Donetsk International Airport, which the rebels had seized the morning after Ukrainians overwhelmingly elected Petro Poroshenko as president.
Pro-Moscow gunmen have declared the city of a million people capital of an independent Donetsk People’s Republic. On Wednesday their leader Denis Pushilin appealed again for Russia’s help. “The residents of the Donetsk People’s Republic are on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said. “We are Russians and this is precisely why they are killing us. We want to become part of Russia.”
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of pushing Ukraine into “the abyss of fratricidal war”, and reiterated his call for an end to Kiev’s military offensive. His ministry urged Kiev to let it send humanitarian aid to civilians trapped by the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The rebels’ plight puts pressure on President Vladimir Putin to act, even though he has reduced the number of forces he has massed on Ukraine’s eastern border and has said he would recognise the outcome of Sunday’s election in Ukraine.
Rebel fighters were strengthening their barricades with sandbags on the road to the airport near the hulk of a truck where many of them were killed by government fire on Monday.