Battle at Ukraine Airport

(Reuters) -
A Ukrainian helicopter Mi-24 gunship fires its cannons against rebels at the main terminal building of Donetsk international airport Monday. (REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis)
A Ukrainian helicopter Mi-24 gunship fires its cannons against rebels at the main terminal building of Donetsk international airport Monday. (REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis)

New leader says no talks with ‘terrorists’

Ukraine launched air strikes and a paratrooper assault against pro-Russian rebels who seized an airport on Monday, as its newly elected leader rejected any talks with “terrorists” and said a robust military campaign in the east should be able to put down a separatist revolt in “a matter of hours.”

Ukrainians rallied overwhelmingly in Sunday’s election behind Petro Poroshenko, a political veteran and billionaire owner of chocolate factories, hoping the burly 48-year-old can rescue the nation from the brink of bankruptcy, civil war and dismemberment by its former Soviet masters in the Kremlin.

Monday’s rapid military response to separatists who seized the airport in Donetsk was a defiant answer to Moscow, which said it was ready for dialogue with Poroshenko but demanded he first scale back the armed forces’ campaign in the east.

Even as the fighting was getting under way, Poroshenko held a news conference in Kiev where he said the government’s military offensive needed to be “quicker and more effective.”

“The anti-terrorist operation should not last two or three months. It should last for a matter of hours,” he said.

As for the rebel fighters: “They want to preserve a bandit state which is held in place by force of arms,” he said. “These are simply bandits. Nobody in any civilized state will hold negotiations with terrorists.”

Gunfire and explosions could be heard as a warplane flew over Donetsk’s Sergei Prokofiev International Airport, hours after truckloads of armed rebel fighters arrived and seized a terminal. Thick black smoke rose from within the perimeter.

The government said its jets had strafed the area with warning shots and then struck a location where rebels were concentrated, scattering the fighters before paratroops were flown in to face them.

Eight hours after it began, fighting was continuing after nightfall and had spread to residential neighborhoods nearby.

“Fighting continues in the airport, with the use of planes and helicopters,” said separatist leader Denis Pushilin. “It’s a full-blown military standoff. I have no information on casualties. Our groups have destroyed one helicopter of the enemy.”

The airport serves a city of 1 million people that the rebels have proclaimed capital of an independent “people’s republic”, and where they succeeded in blocking all voting in Sunday’s election.

Their attempt to seize the airport may have been intended to prevent Poroshenko from travelling there: he has said his first trip in office would be to visit the restive east.

Preliminary results, with 80 percent of the vote counted, gave Poroshenko 54.1 percent of the vote — towering over a field of 21 candidates with enough support to avert a run-off. His closest challenger, former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, had just 13.1 percent and made clear she would concede.