Ukrainian aircraft and paratroopers are said to have killed more than 50 pro-Russian rebels in an assault that raged into a second day on Tuesday after a newly elected president vowed to crush the revolt in the east once and for all.
The unprecedented offensive throws a challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has said he reserves the right to defend Russian speakers under threat.
Reuters journalists counted 20 bodies in combat fatigues in one room of a city morgue in Donetsk. Some of the bodies were missing limbs, a sign that the government had brought to bear heavy firepower against the rebels for the first time.
“From our side, there are more than 50 [dead],” the prime minister of the rebels’ self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, told Reuters at the hospital. The government said it suffered no losses in the assault, which began with air strikes hours after Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted to elect 48-year-old Petro Poroshenko as their new president.
Putin demanded an immediate halt to the offensive. Moscow said a visit by Poroshenko was not under consideration, though it has said it is prepared to work with him.
Until now, Ukrainian forces have largely avoided direct assaults on the separatists, partly because they fear tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the border could invade. But Poroshenko and his government appear to have interpreted his victory as a clear mandate for decisive action.
The new Ukrainian government assault began even as Poroshenko was holding his victory news conference in Kiev.
After rebels seized the Donetsk airport on Monday, Ukrainian warplanes and helicopters strafed them from the air, and paratroopers were flown in to root them out. “The airport is completely under control,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told journalists in the capital Kiev. “The adversary suffered heavy losses. We have no losses,” he added.
“We’ll continue the anti-terrorist operation until not a single terrorist remains on the territory of Ukraine,” First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema said on the margins of a government meeting.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2014.
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