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Let Them Eat Cake or: The Battle for Donetsk International Airport

Fierce fighting erupted today on the outskirts of Donetsk as the Ukrainian military clashed with rebels for control of the city’s airport.
May 26, 2014, 11:50pm
Photo by Henry Langston

Fierce fighting erupted today on the outskirts of Donetsk as the Ukrainian military clashed with rebels for control of the city’s airport. Black plumes of smoke billowed from the building as helicopters and fighter jets roared overhead. Balaclava-clad militia dodged between trees and bushes while sniper fire cracked overhead.

Photo by Henry Langston

While the Donetsk People's Republic has flown its flag over the airport for the past two weeks, this morning the pro-Russia rebels who already control large parts of the region tried to take the airport by force.

Following the expiration of a 1 PM deadline for the rebels to withdraw, Ukraine’s army launched an attack with Mi-24 helicopter gunships fire rockets and cannon at the concrete and glass terminal buildings.

Photo by Henry Langston

Rebels returned fire with anti-aircraft missiles, rocket propelled grenades and automatic fire.

The Ukrainian military launched an attack on a pro-Russia militia which seized Donetsk airport on May 26. This video shows helicopters circling the airport and smoke rising from the location. Video via YouTube/Newsanna.

By afternoon the violence edged into the city itself.

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At the city’s train station, less than three miles from the fighting, people dashed for cover as explosions reverberated through the streets, setting off car alarms. Automatic gunfire echoed in the background. One woman, likely hit by a stray bullet, lay dead on the floor surrounded by a pool of blood. Locals placed unfolded cardboard boxes over the unceremoniously sprawled body.

In a chilling adaptation to the climate of war some people strolled casually past the corpse, including one woman in a fetching summer dress carrying a cake. But others shouted angrily: “Look, we are being murdered in the streets,” shouted one man. Many fled inside the train station for shelter. “We are too terrified to talk” one family told VICE News. Others sobbed on the phone to loved ones.

Meanwhile shots ricocheted through residential streets near the airport as the military tried to push the rebel forces back. One group of rebels hightailed it from the area hitching a lift in a local’s car. Down the road a truck roared past with wounded in it.

The number of deaths are at present unknown.

The new wave of violence in east comes just one day after a vote billed as a pivotal point in the troubled country’s future.

On Sunday most of the country went to the polls to elect a new president. Petro Poroshenko, the so-called “Chocolate King,” won a landslide victory with 54.1 percent of the 80 percent of votes counted so far.

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But, while the election passed uneventfully in most of the country, many people in rebel-held areas were unable to cast their ballots. A campaign of violence and intimidation by pro-Russia militia operating in the region closed large numbers of polling stations in the east, as ballot papers went undelivered and security could not be guaranteed.

The militia’s leader, Denis Pushilin, who has declared Sunday’s election “illegal” and the presence of Ukrainian military in the region as an “occupation”, also looked unwilling to give up ground. “The Donetsk People’s Republic will never return to Ukraine” he said.

But in the wake of Monday’s fighting, Pushilin failed to turn up to a scheduled public speech and rumors spread that he had fled Donetsk.

The anger in the city is reaching boiling point. On Monday, one old man pulled up in car with a sawn-off shotgun and fired several rounds in the direction of the airport, while other locals proclaimed angrily that they would join the fighting if they had a gun.

By the end of the day hours of heavy fighting seemed to have left the two sides in a stalemate. In the afternoon as rebel positions continued to come under heavy sniper fire, militia groups formed defensive lines, including dug in positions, on the outskirts of the airport but did not advance forward. As darkness fell VICE News was unable to confirm who was in control of the airfield.

The battle, on the edge of the region’s administrative capital, marks a new phase in the conflict in Ukraine’s east, which began when rebels started seizing administrative and security buildings at the beginning of April. Since then the pro-Russian militia groups operating in the area have consolidated control over large pockets of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts in Ukraine’s east.

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Meanwhile in nearby Slovyansk, 68 miles from Donetsk, fighting also cranked up a notch. A campaign of shelling which has lasted several weeks damaged several residential houses and reportedly killed at least two civilians and wounded several more.

Aftermath of a fatal mortar attack in the Artema area of Slovyansk

The city is considered the heartland of the rebels and has been the focus of an anti-terrorism operation which began last month. But on Monday night Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense denied it was behind the attacks.

“The terrorists attacked civilians from small arms and mortars to discredit the anti-terror forces, to form a negative attitude to the Ukrainian military within the Ukrainian and world communities” read a statement issued by Kiev.

On Monday evening in Donetsk the city center was empty as a curfew was imposed and a state of martial law announced. Several loud explosions were audible in the city center followed by the continued dull thuds of mortar explosions in the distance. President Poroshenko held a news conference earlier in the day, acknowledging that the government’s military offensive needed to be “quicker and more effective.”