Donetsk, May 28 (Reuters): Relative calm returned to the streets of Donetsk today after the biggest battle of the pro-Russian separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine, a conflict transformed by the landslide election of a pro-European leader who vowed to crush the revolt.
Sounds of distant gunfire were heard coming from the south of the city and local media reported brief outbreaks of fighting on the outskirts, although this could not be independently confirmed.
However, this appeared minor compared with on Monday and Tuesday when government forces killed dozens of rebel fighters in an assault to retake Donetsk International Airport, which the rebels had seized the morning after Ukrainians overwhelmingly elected Petro Poroshenko as President.
Pro-Moscow gunmen have declared the city of a million people capital of an independent Donetsk People's Republic. On Wednesday their leader Denis Pushilin appealed again for Russia's help. "The residents of the Donetsk People's Republic are on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe," he said. "We are Russians and this is precisely why they are killing us. We want to become part of Russia."
In Moscow, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of pushing Ukraine into "the abyss of fratricidal war", and reiterated his call for an end to Kiev's military offensive. His ministry urged Kiev to let it send humanitarian aid to civilians trapped by the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The rebels' plight puts pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to act, even though he has reduced the number of forces he has massed on Ukraine's eastern border and has said he would recognise the outcome of Sunday's election in Ukraine.
Rebel fighters were strengthening their barricades with sandbags on the road to the airport near the hulk of a truck where many of them were killed by government fire on Monday.
The assault was the first time Kiev has unleashed its full military force against the fighters after weeks of restraint. Morgues were filled on Tuesday with bodies of rebel gunmen, some missing limbs.
The separatist authorities say as many as 50 died, including a truckload of wounded fighters blasted apart as they were driven away from the battlefield. The government said it suffered no losses in the operation, when its aircraft strafed the airport and paratroops landed to reclaim it
“We are in a state of war in the east. Crimea is occupied by Russia and there is great instability. We must react,” he told Germany's Bild newspaper.
“We will no longer permit these terrorists to kidnap and shoot people, occupy buildings or suspend the law. We will put an end to these horrors - a real war is being waged against our country,” said Poroshenko, who is expected to be inaugurated within two weeks.
His swift offensive has thrown down a challenge to Putin, who made defending Russians in other parts of the former Soviet Union a pillar of his rule since declaring his right to use military force in Ukraine in March