Ukraine air raid on militants as president-elect pledges peace talks
DONETSK, Ukraine // Ukraine’s new president-elect on Monday promised to negotiate an end to a pro-Russia insurgency in the east, saying he was willing to begin talks with Moscow, while the Kiev government launched an air raid on militants who occupied a major airport.
Russia quickly welcomed Petro Poroshenko’s offer for talks, raising hopes that his election will indeed ease the protracted crisis that has fuelled tensions unseen since the end of the Cold War.
But Ukraine’s military launched air strikes on Monday against separatists who had taken over the airport in the eastern capital of Donetsk in what appeared to be the most visible operation of the Ukrainian troops since they started a crackdown on insurgents last month.
In Donetsk, a city of one million, sustained artillery and gunfire was heard from the airport. Fighter jets and military helicopters were seen flying overhead, and dense black smoke rose in the air.
Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for Kiev’s anti-terrorist operation, wrote on his Facebook account that the military had given an ultimatum to the armed men who had occupied the airport to lay down their arms. He said the gunmen didn’t comply and the military launched an air raid.
Denis Pushilin, a leader of the separatists, said they had sent their men to the airport after some of their supporters were detained.
Many flights to or from Donetsk were delayed or cancelled on Monday, including a flight from the UAE operated by flydubai. Access to the airport was blocked by police.
In Kiev, international observers hailed Ukraine’s presidential vote as a “genuine election,” saying it was held freely and fairly.
Candy magnate Mr Poroshenko, known for his pragmatism, supports building strong ties with Europe but also has stressed the importance of mending relations with Moscow. Upon claiming victory in Sunday’s vote, he said his first step as president would be to visit the Donbass eastern industrial region, where pro-Russia separatists have seized government buildings, declared independence and battled government troops in weeks of fighting.
“Peace in the country and peace in the east is my main priority,” Mr Poroshenko said on Monday, signalling that he would bring to an end the Ukrainian army’s much-criticised campaign to drive out the armed pro-Russia separatists.
The tycoon looked decidedly cool and composed Sunday night when the exit poll results were announced. On Monday, he got emotional when he was asked about the crisis in the east.
“The anti-terrorist operation cannot and should not last two or three months,” he said. “It should and will last hours.”
The military operation has caused civilian deaths and destroyed property — angering many eastern residents — while still failing to crush the rebellion.
The president-elect also had harsh words for the pro-Russia gunmen, comparing them to Somalian pirates.
“Their goal is to turn Donbass into a Somalia where they would rule with the power of machine guns. l will never allow that to happen on the territory of Ukraine,” Mr Poroshenko said, adding that he hoped Russia would support his efforts to stabilise the east.
Mr Poroshenko’s spokesman Andriy Zhigulin said that the date for his inauguration has not been set yet.
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia appreciated Mr Poroshenko’s statements about the importance of Ukraine’s ties with Russia and his pledge to negotiate an end to fighting in the east.
“We are ready for dialogue with representatives of Kiev, with Petro Poroshenko,” Mr Lavrov said at a briefing, adding it was a chance that “cannot be wasted.” He emphasised that Moscow saw no need for any involvement by the United States or the European Union in those talks.
“We don’t need any mediators,” he said pointedly.
Mr Lavrov also noted Russia’s long-standing call for the Kiev government to end its military operation in eastern Ukraine.
The rebels had vowed to block Sunday’s voting in the east. Less than 20 per cent of the polling stations were open there after gunmen intimidated residents by smashing ballot boxes, shutting down polling centres and issuing threats.
* Associated Press
Published: May 26, 2014 04:00 AM