Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint near the town of Izium on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Kiev/Kramatorsk (Ukraine), April 15 (Reuters): Ukrainian armed forces today launched a “special operation” against militiamen in the country’s Russian speaking east, authorities said, recapturing a military airfield from pro-Moscow separatists.
Gunfire could be heard from the airfield at the town of Kramatorsk after a fighter jet swooped low over the area. Ukrainian troops were seen disembarking from helicopters.
A Reuters correspondent in Kramatorsk saw four military helicopters over the airport. Two of these landed and when troops stepped out and walked across the field, locals manning a barricade shouted: “Shame! Go back home!”
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksander Turchinov had earlier announced that a military operation was under way to flush pro-Russian separatists out of the government buildings and facilities they have seized in about 10 towns and cities in the east over the last few days.
Turchinov issued a statement saying Ukraine had retaken the airfield in Kramatorsk from pro-Russian militants, while the state security service said an “anti-terrorist” operation was in progress against separatists in the nearby town of Slaviansk.
The operations appeared to mark an escalation of the deepest East-West crisis since the Cold War. The standoff has raised fears in the West and in Kiev that Russia might intervene militarily on behalf of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, following its annexation of the Crimean region last month in response to the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President, Viktor Yanukovich, after weeks of protests.
Earlier, pro-Russian militants who had been holed up in the Kramatorsk police headquarters since Saturday left the building — but a state security official in Kiev said separatists had then taken over the agency’s offices in the town.
Outside the police station about a dozen civilians manned barricades of tyres and wooden crates. A dozen or so armed Cossacks — paramilitary fighters who claim descent from Tsarist-era patrolmen — stood guard at the mayor’s offices. Shops were functioning as usual and bread supplies were normal.
In Kiev, a radical pro-Russian candidate running for Ukrainian presidential elections due next month was beaten up by an angry crowd.
Moscow accuses Kiev of provoking the crisis by ignoring the rights of citizens who use Russian as their first language, and has promised to protect them from attack. Russia also stresses the presence of far-Right nationalists among Kiev’s new rulers.
However, a UN report today cast doubt on whether Russian-speakers were seriously threatened, including those in Crimea who voted to join Russia after Moscow forces had already seized control of the Black Sea peninsula.
“Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread,” said the report by the UN human rights office.
Russia called the report one-sided, politicised and apparently fabricated.
Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen accused Moscow of involvement in the rebellions. “It is very clear that Russia’s hand is deeply engaged in this,” he told reporters.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Moscow was stirring up the separatists in the east and southeast as a possible prelude to repeating its annexation of Crimea. “Ukraine is spreading lies that Russia is behind the actions in the southeast,” Lavrov said on a visit to China.
Moscow has demanded constitutional change in Ukraine to give more powers to Russian-speaking areas, where most of the country’s heavy industry lies.