Air strikes and gunbattles at airport now Ukraine's frontline

Two helicopters sped in low towards the gleaming airport terminal and unleashed a salvo of rockets at an unseen target behind a line of trees, sending a thick black plume of smoke billowing into the air.

Sweeping back around as shots rang up from the ground, one chopper opened fire at Donetsk airport's glass-fronted terminal where just hours earlier passengers had been boarding flights to Ukraine and abroad.

For hours on Monday, the rattle of heavy machine gunfire and thud of explosions turned Donetsk airport into Ukraine's new frontline as government forces battled separatist fighters for control of the strategic transport hub in the east's major rebel-held city.

"It's like Chechnya down there," former miner Mikhail Rozhkov panted as he cycled up from checking on his 76-year-old father working as a garage security guard near the airport.

"They're firing rocket propelled grenades and mortars," he said. "It's terrifying".

Rozhkov said his father was safe hiding down in a basement and now he was heading home to reassure his elderly mother.

"I have to tell her dad is still fine and alive. I don't know about tomorrow though."

Scores of heavily-armed rebel fighters, some wearing Cossack hats and with long beards, had seized the airport without a shot and demanded that soldiers guarding the perimeter be withdrawn.

- 'Suddenly two explosions' -

All flights in and out were halted before the government unleashed fighter jets and heavy firepower against the insurgents after the expiry of a lunchtime ultimatum for them to leave the airport -- which had undergone a massive $900 million refurbishment for the 2012 European football championships.

"It was quiet and then suddenly two explosions and then another two -- they seemed like they had been fired from a plane," said Maksim Bakhal, a worker at a cemetery on the edge of the airport.

"Then three helicopters flew over and they were shooting at them with machine guns," he said. "Then there was shooting from all sides -- with heavier weapons and cannons."

Inside the Svatoiversky convent, its golden dome glistening some few hundred metres (yards) from the airport fence, seven nuns were trapped helplessly by the fighting.

"Where can they go?" a woman in a headscarf said as a bearded priest in a black robe drove her towards the convent.

- 'Nuns are praying' -

"You want to know how the nuns are doing?" asked the priest as he returned back an hour or so later.

"They're praying, that's what they're doing."

Monday's fighting was the first time that heavy clashes roiling other towns and villages under rebel control came to Donetsk, a provincial city of one million where sprawling Soviet suburbs contrast with glitzy high rises catering to the wealthy elite.

"We can't escape a war now -- that's one hundred percent sure," said pro-Russian supporter Sergei, looking up as the sound of a jet roared overhead towards the airport.

"This is only still the beginning."

After four hours of sporadic fighting the battle seemed to subside -- at least temporarily -- but the streets around the airport remained deserted behind traffic police checkpoints.

Only groups of armed rebel fighters could be seen crouching by the road as they screamed at a car carrying an AFP journalist to get out of the area fast. Another truck of rebel fighters was soon seen heading towards the airport.

"It is still too early to say how the battle is going," a senior separatist fighter said, standing with his Kalashnikov a little further from the airport.

"We don't have any information about dead or wounded."

The fierce confrontation erupted after Ukrainian oligarch Petro Poroshenko, the winner of Sunday's crucial presidential election, vowed he would not let the separatists turn the east "into Somalia".

Poroshenko said there would be no let-up in efforts to crush the rebels but that the operation would be "more efficient".

He said he planned to make the Donbass region his first point of call after he takes over, but the insurgents say he is not welcome.

"The situation is getting worse on the ground, so it's not very smart of Poroshenko to want to come here, because people don't want to see him," said one Donetsk rebel leader Denis Pushilin.

"A dialogue is possible but only in the presence of mediators and the only possible mediator is Russia," he said, adding that the separatists had a number of conditions including a prisoner swap and withdrawal of troops from the Donbass.

by Max DELANY © 2014 AFP

Source: AFP
Date: May 26, 2014