The idyllic, tranquil scene in the small eastern Ukraine village of Oktyabrskoe was marred today by the carcass of a burnt-out armored personnel carrier (APC), still smolders just feet away from a row of houses. Nearby, an abandoned ammunition transportation vehicle sat in a similar condition, as unexploded mortars and shells littered the surrounding field.
On Tuesday fighting between the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) militia and Ukrainian forces violently disturbed the otherwise peaceful village of Oktyabrskoe, 24 miles from the rebels’ heartland in Sloviansk. The militia ambushed a convoy of military vehicles, attacking them with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, according to eyewitness reports.
"I hid in the cellar, there was shooting everywhere, shells flying everywhere. It was terrible," pensioner Nina told VICE News while sitting outside her house.
Other bewildered villagers told of armed men running through the fields and helicopters circling as Ukrainian forces launched a mission to rescue their men. Many terrified locals seemed to blame both sides for the violent eruption.
"They all need to get rid of these barricades and just go home, before there is no Ukraine left to fight over," said Vladimir, a local who was waving a incinerated gun he had retrieved from the APC wreckage.
Seven soldiers died in the assault, according to a statement released by the Ministry of Defense Tuesday night, and at least two more were airlifted away seriously injured. Since Kiev’s anti-terrorism effort went into an active phase nearly two weeks ago the Ukrainian army has suffered heavy losses. More than a dozen of its men have been killed in clashes, and three helicopters have been shot down by the rebels.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense reported that soldiers were killed and wounded in an ambush on the outskirts of a village near Kramatorsk on May 13. This video shows some of the wounded being airlifted by helicopter on May 14.
Alexy, a Ukrainian military commander on a checkpoint 12 miles from Tuesday's ambush, told VICE News that his unit came under gunfire from the rebels during the early hours of the morning. Guerilla style hit-and-run attacks are becoming an almost "nightly occurrence," admitted the commander.
Meanwhile Viacheslav Ponomarev, the gold-toothed people's mayor of the rebels’ heartland in Slovyansk, who is rumored to have once worked as a laundry detergent seller, says that despite the doorstep chaos, he is taking steps to return the city to normalcy. Public transport between villages is partly up and running again, and steps are being taken to address issues with healthcare and other public services, he told press.
"It is important children go to school," he added, pledging to ensure that local schools, which have been closed since fighting on the outskirts of the city began, will reopen as soon as possible.
Despite the reassuring tone, all indications are that as the presidential elections edge ever-closer, tensions will ratchet up a notch further.
The Kiev appointed governor of Donetsk Sergey Taruta, a steel and coal oligarch, has said that the May 25 vote will go ahead despite the opposition of the rebels, who have declared the city the capital of their unrecognized microstate. Taruta has scathingly called the unmonitored vote, which brought the republic into existence, nothing more than an "opinion poll."
Today roundtable discussions on the topic of "national unity" were held in Kiev, chaired by veteran German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinge. But the rebel leaders were notably absent after Kiev said that it refused to negotiate with terrorists who have "blood on their hands."
Speaking at the talks, Ukraine's interim Prime Minister Oleksander Turchynov remained uncompromising: "Those with weapons in hand who are waging a war against their own country and dictating the will of a neighboring country will answer before the law," he said.
The response of the rebel leaders has been equally hostile.
"What are these ‘negotiations’ organized by a Kiev junta? There can be no negotiations unless all Ukrainian military units are immediately removed from Donetsk and Luhansk regions," said a visibly irritated Ponomarev at today's press conference. "We don't take hostages, we have the right to kill those illegally occupying our territory.”
On Tuesday the European Union announced a new round of sanctions against those it views as being behind the unrest in Ukraine. A total of 31 people are now on the list. The second-wave additions to the blacklist includes Ponomarev, Commander of the DPR's armed forces Igor Kakidzyanov, the DPR's leader Denis Pushilin, and several other prominent rebels.
But Slovyansk's people's mayor was dismissive of the restrictions imposed on him, saying that he "didn't want to go abroad anyway." Nonetheless, Ponomarev warned that there will be reprisals in the form of counter-sanctions against the EU.
"If they think that Slovyansk is a small spot on the map, they will see tomorrow that they are deeply wrong," he added.
The DPR has already imposed travel bans on President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, banning them from entering or flying over the so-called republic.
The authorities in Luhansk have also been keen to show their disregard for the West, today reportedly distributing leaflets outlawing the iconic symbols of western imperialism: McDonalds, Pepsi, and Coca Cola.
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