DONETSK, Ukraine: Ukraine said on Tuesday it had recaptured the airport in the eastern city of Donetsk after deadly battles with pro-Moscow rebels, while European Union (EU) leaders urged Russia to work with the country’s new president.
Caught up in the drama in Donetsk were a team of international monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who have gone missing after being detained at a checkpoint.
As fear gripped the city’s streets, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Ukraine to end its “punitive” operation in the rebel-held east and for talks between Kiev and the insurgents.
The battle for the main transport hub in Ukraine’s industrial heartland erupted on Monday just hours after president-elect Petro Poroshenko vowed to take a tough stand against the “terrorists.”
“The airport is under our full control. The enemy suffered heavy losses. We have none,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said.
EU leaders, at a Brussels summit, urged Russia to work with Poroshenko and to continue withdrawing its troops from the country’s border.
Russia should also use its leverage on the armed separatists to deescalate the situation” in the east, said a draft EU summit statement seen by Agence France-Presse.
The EU has applied visa bans and asset freezes to a series of high-profile Russian and Ukrainian figures judged to have helped in Moscow’s annexation of Crimea or stoked separatist violence in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko said on Monday the military would press its offensive against the insurgents who now control about a dozen cities and towns in the east.
At the same time, the 48-year-old pro-Western chocolate tycoon said he was ready to engage with the Russian leadership and was optimistic a meeting with President Vladimir Putin could be arranged soon.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a visit by Poroshenko was “not being considered.”
The EU leaders also pressed on Poroshenko the need to make all efforts on his side to ease the conflict, and to continue to adopt economic and political reforms to bring Ukraine up to European standards.
US President Barack Obama called the president-elect and offered him “the full support of the United States” but United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Ukraine to use “exclusively peaceful means” to regain control in the east.
Donetsk mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko said two civilians and 38 combatants had died and another 31 were wounded in the fighting, including Russians and possibly Chechens.
An AFP correspondent reported seeing body parts and blood splattered near a bullet-riddled truck on the airport road, where makeshift blockades had been set up with dumper trucks and piles of tires.
Combat jets and helicopter gunships struck the airport terminal on Monday after it was seized by scores of gunmen just a day after Ukraine’s presidential election won by Poroshenko.
The OSCE, which has played a key role in trying to end the crisis, said it had lost contact since Monday with four monitors—a Dane, an Estonian, a Swiss and a Turk—while on patrol in Donetsk.
An official in Vienna said they had been held at a checkpoint before contact was lost, while a Turkish foreign ministry official said: “We have learnt through unofficial channels they are safe and sound.”
The OSCE also announced that two Ukrainian journalists accused of “spying” were taken hostage by separatists in the Luhansk district.