"Our president [Ramzan Kadyrov] gave the order. They called us and we came,” 33-year-old Zelimhan tells VICE News. The bearded fighter, a member of a unit known as the “Wild Division,” says he arrived a week ago with 34 Chechen men who volunteered to come and support their “brothers” in the People’s Republic of Donetsk.
Russia and the authorities of the rebel republic have repeatedly denied allegations that foreign groups are crossing into Ukraine to fight alongside the rebels.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry has said that the country is under “undisguised aggression” from Moscow, which is “exporting foreign terrorism” to the country.
The Wild Division is just the latest unit to join the swirling mix of militia groups that are descending on eastern Ukraine to join in a conflict that increasingly looks to be turning into a civil war.
Fighting in the region has killed scores in the last week.
“We know how it looks when people are humiliated, so we have come to help,” says 30-year-old Magomed, another member of the Chechen unit. The fighter reclines against a wall outside the hospital, dragging heavily on a cigarette. His ragtag military fatigues are bloodstained and he looks exhausted. Yesterday he was shot twice, once in the ankle and once in the groin, during the fierce clashes between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces for control of Donetsk airport.
On his chest is a home-inked wolf tattoo: “It’s like me, independent and self-sufficient,” he says with a broad grin.
The battle over the airfield in the administrative capital of the region came just one day after Ukraine elected a new president: the so-called “Chocolate King" Petro Poroshenko. The oligarch-cum-politician has made clear that he will not negotiate with the “terrorists” operating in the country’s east, who he says are leading Ukraine to a Somalia-like scenario.
Following a bid by the rebels to take over the airport, Ukrainian helicopters and fighter jets fired overhead as a gun battle raged below. The rebels claim they were caught unawares after being lured inside for "negotiations," but what sparked the fighting is unclear.
Dozens of pro-Russia militia members were reported dead after clashes with the Ukrainian military at Donetsk airport on May 26.
Most of the pro-Russia militia groups operating in the area are local, but many have traveled from neighboring regions of the country, including Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow last month following a Putin-backed putsch.
Numerous loosely coordinated paramilitary units now operate in the country’s east. Some, such as Oplot, a Russian nationalist group based in Kharkiv, pre-date the crisis, while others like the Unit of Bes ("demon" in Russian) have formed in response to it.
On the other side of the fence, pro-Ukrainian fighter groups are also weighing into the conflict.
Last week, “Right Sector,” a nationalist group with strong ties to neo-Nazism, attacked a rebel checkpoint in Karlovka. The fighting, which raged for several hours just meters away from residential houses, killed at least a dozen. The far-right group coordinated the assault with Donbass Battalion, a newly formed group of so-called “patriotic volunteers” rumored to be financed by the Kiev-appointed Governor of Dnipropetrovsk and owner of Privat bank Igor Kolomoisky.
Another Ukrainian paramilitary unit, financed by Oleh Lyashko, leader of the Radical Party and presidential candidate in the recent election, were implicated in a botched anti-terrorism assault led by the Ukrainian army in Mariupol. The operation killed several unarmed citizens when nervous troops opened fire on an angry crowd. Lyashko’s unit openly claimed responsibility for another operation which “cleansed” pro-Russia rebels from an administration building in Torez; one was killed and two were wounded in the attack.
Both Russia and the West have engaged in mutual finger-pointing over the deepening Ukraine crisis, which has rocked the country since the Maidan revolution ousted the pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych in February.
America has openly supplied the Ukrainian army with food rations, but the rebels accuse the West of sending weapons and mercenaries to fight in the region.
The Ukraine’s porous borders with Russia allow easy access for those who want to send weapons, or men, to aid the rebel groups operating the country’s east. Ukraine’s border guard has made numerous reports of trucks with arms crossing into the country in the last few weeks.
Vasya, a 25-year-old formersmall-time gangster who now runs an intelligence and police unit for the rebels in Gorlovka – a town just thirty minutes drive from Donetsk city – told VICE News that he had run two trucks of weapons across Russian border into Ukraine this week. “It’s easy,” he bragged. “There’s nothing to stop you doing it.” The pro-Russia rebels are appearing on the streets with increasingly sophisticated weaponry including rocket-propelled grenade launchers and surface to air missiles.
The journey from their native Chechnya via Rostov to Donetsk was equally straightforward, Sayid, one of the Wild Division’s fighters told VICE News. The Chechen unit tells VICE News they are fighting alongside 16 “brothers” from Ossetia, who have been on site for around two months.
Today, fighting continued to flare on the outskirts of Donetsk. Standing at a police cordon that marks a three-kilometer zone around the airport, the intermittent dull boom of shells was audible. A few anxious rebels armed with automatic weapons paced near the barricade, keeping their fingers on their triggers. Molotov cocktails were stacked up at the side of the road.
Speaking to VICE News, head of the Donetsk municipal police Yuriy Sednyev called the situation was a "mess," and reported that "neither side bothered to inform police about military actions."
"We are advising all civilians to stay inside their homes," he added.
In the city where most shops were closed and the streets were quiet, rebel leaders today announced a 10 PM curfew.
At the morgue the bodies continue to pile up. According to the police officer, stationed outside the cordoned-off hospital building, there were at least 35 bodies stretched out inside, including 10 civilians caught in the crossfire. Many were nearly unidentifiable due to their heavy wounds, he said.
Signs of war were visible on the streets of the Donetsk center this morning. Less than a kilometer down the road from the city’s central trauma hospital, the carcass of an overturned Kamaz truck lay outside a block of administrative offices. Another of the Soviet-era military vehicles sprawled across the highway near the bridge, body parts scattered on the road around it. The Chechen fighters told VICE News that they were transporting the rebels’ dead and wounded from battle in the vehicles when they were hit by heavy sniper fire.
Alexei Dmitrashkovsky, a spokesperson for Kiev’s “counter-terrorism” effort, claimed that his forces have killed at least 200 men. “The anti-terror operation in Donetsk will continue until all the terrorists will be destroyed or until they surrender,” he said in a statement.
The depths the country will sink to before that goal is achieved, however, could be catastrophic. “In our country there is a meaning to 'blood feud',” says tattooed Chechen fighter Magomed whose lost one comrade in the battle yesterday. “We will not forget this. If you kill one of ours, we will kill one hundred of yours.”
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