In Ukraine, fighting at airport continues as president-elect vows to seek unity
DONETSK, Ukraine - Explosions and gun battles continued to rock this separatist region of eastern Ukraine late Monday night as state security forces fought rebels for control of a major airport, hours after Ukraine's president-elect declared in Kiev that he would seek to unite the nation after a months-long crisis.
As a Ukrainian military helicopter exchanged fire with separatist militants along an airport highway in Donetsk and the thunder of mortar shells sent residents running for cover, Petro Poroshenko told reporters that he would move quickly to bring peace and stability to the country and that he planned to visit the violence-plagued Donets Basin in his first trip as Ukraine's leader.
The parallel realities underscored the depth of Poroshenko's challenges. Without the main airport of the Donets Basin, Ukraine's industrial heartland, under full government control, even the basic practicality of fulfilling his pledge to visit was in question.
Poroshenko, 48, faces the daunting task of quelling the pro-Russia rebellion in the east while meeting the demands of the Europe-leaning constituency that elected him - tamping down corruption and modernizing the former Soviet republic's economy. Whether the billionaire can successfully navigate Ukraine's turbulent relationship with Russia will also be key.
Poroshenko, a chocolate magnate who ran on a platform of bringing Ukraine closer to its European neighbors, vowed Monday to launch a swift military operation to crush the separatists, whom he likened to "Somali pirates."
"Their goal is to turn Donbas into Somalia, and I will never allow such things to happen in my country," he said, using another name for the Donets Basin and apparently citing the African nation as an example of a place where militants have more power than the state.
But he offered an olive branch to eastern Ukraine by saying that elections should take place to give residents there a measure of local control. And he conceded that the cooperation of Russia - which Kiev and the West have accused of fomenting the separatist rebellion - would be crucial to ending the violence.
"Russia is our biggest neighbor," Poroshenko said. "Stopping war and bringing peace to all Ukraine, bringing stability to the eastern part of Ukraine, that will be impossible without the participation of Russia."
Poroshenko said those talks would start as early as next month, adding that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin "know each other quite well."
Russian officials said Monday that the Kremlin was ready to hold talks with Poroshenko, signaling a more conciliatory tone after months of finger-pointing between Kiev and Moscow amid a conflict that has left Russia's relationship with the United States and Europe at its lowest point since the Cold War.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Ukraine's election Sunday was "not without problems." But Russia will "respect the will expressed by the Ukrainian people," he told reporters in Moscow, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.
"We, as our president said repeatedly, are ready for a dialogue with Kiev representatives, ready for a dialogue with Petro Poroshenko," Lavrov said.
The intense clash at the Donetsk airport, which continued Monday night, seemed to show a hardening of wills from the government and the rebels. The separatists - who have felt their cause jeopardized by internal divisions, waning support from Moscow and a decision by industrial magnate Rinat Akhmetov to throw his financial might to the side of unity - had declared martial law and demanded that Ukrainian troops leave.
The rebels seized the airport sometime before 7 a.m., when the airport's website announced its closure and the cancellation of flights without an explanation. But the Ukrainian military showed its resolve to take the fight to the militants. Shortly after 1 p.m., four Ukrainian helicopters flew over the treetops near the airport, and within minutes, machine-gun fire erupted west of the terminal.
Explosions resounded along a major highway for hours, as armed rebels in fatigues and balaclavas darted through nearby woods. The helicopters opened fire on the rebels, and jets zoomed low to drop chaff - bits of aluminum or flares that military aircraft expel to confuse heat-seeking or radar-guided missiles - over the forest and highway.
A helicopter gunship destroyed a rebel-held antiaircraft array that was being used against Ukrainian security forces, said Vladislav Seleznev, a spokesman for the military's anti-separatist operations.