DONETSK, Ukraine, Jan 18, 2015 (AFP) – Ukraine rushed tanks to the front lines and claimed Sunday to have cleared pro-Russian rebels from most of Donetsk airport after days of intense fighting, with heavy shelling shaking the key eastern city.
As fighting wracked the country’s war-torn east, thousands of people held a common prayer and peace march in the capital Kiev attended by President Petro Poroshenko, who vowed the country would not yield to rebels he says have been backed by Russian troops and weapons.
At least 14 people were killed, including four soldiers, houses were destroyed and electricity was cut for many homes and businesses as explosions repeatedly ripped through parts of the Donetsk region at the weekend.
Most of the blasts rang out from the area surrounding Donetsk airport northwest of the city as the army and rebels battled for control of the blackened and wrecked site hit by months of on-off clashes.
But some were also heard closer to the city center, and Donetsk officials reported “massive damage to housing stock, infrastructure and communications of the city.” At least 10 civilians were reported killed at various locations, including two children.
With rebels at one point claiming to control the airport, about 10 Ukrainian tanks rumbled across the snow toward the front lines on Saturday to reinforce soldiers desperately trying to defend it, local television showed.
The army’s aim was to push the rebels back and open a corridor to evacuate the wounded, with the insurgents having earlier unleashed a barrage of heavy artillery fire at the airport, including from at least one tank.
Intense clashes followed, and residents of the northwestern area of the city said neighborhoods had also been hit by shelling.
Ukraine’s military claimed on Sunday afternoon to have cleared out most of the airport, but there was no independent verification of their account, with journalists unable to approach the facility.
“In order to transmit our soldiers all the necessary equipment, ammunition, and to evacuate them, a massive operation was decided upon, which was successful,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told a briefing.
“We managed to almost completely clean up the territory of the airport,” he added.
Public transport shut down and stores closed in parts of the city on Sunday.
“All night, shells flew over our house,” said Margarita, 24, a resident of the city’s northwest. “This morning windows broke from the trembling — very scary.”
Another resident a couple kilometers from the airport said a children’s hospital had been damaged.
The military said Sunday four more soldiers had been killed and 32 wounded.
The conflict that broke out in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland in April 2014 has left more than 4,800 people dead.
Ukraine and Western nations say Russia has supported the rebels with troops and weapons, charges Moscow strongly denies despite witness claims to the contrary.
On Sunday, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying the Kremlin was “extremely concerned about the latest developments.”