At least 24 dead in rocket attack on Donetsk airport, say rebels

Separatists in east Ukraine warn they intend to continue advances and take more territory

A kindergarten which was shelled in Debaltseve, Donetsk area in Ukraine. Diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met this week to thrash out a tentative dividing line from which the warring sides would pull back their heavy weapons. Photograph: Anastasia Vlasova/EPA

A kindergarten which was shelled in Debaltseve, Donetsk area in Ukraine. Diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met this week to thrash out a tentative dividing line from which the warring sides would pull back their heavy weapons. Photograph: Anastasia Vlasova/EPA

 

Rebel sources say twenty-four Russian-backed separatists in east Ukraine have been killed in a rocket attack on the recently captured airport outside their main stronghold city of Donetsk.

Rebel defence spokesman Eduard Basurin said the terminal was targeted by Ukrainian government forces today with Uragan multiple rocket launchers.

The separatist seizure of the virtually obliterated airport this week after months of bitter battles was a major blow for the beleaguered Ukrainian offensives in the east.

Diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met this week to thrash out a tentative dividing line from which the warring sides would pull back their heavy weapons.

Separatists have warned, however, that they intend to continue their advances and take more territory.

Meanwhile, at least eight bus passengers were killed in a missile strike on Thursday in eastern Ukraine.

Russian-backed rebels said a Ukrainian “sabotage group” fired the mortar or shell that hit a trolleybus in separatist-held Donetsk, while Kiev blamed the militants and insisted its forces were too far from the area to be responsible.

Ukrainian officials said eight passengers died, but insurgents claimed 13 were killed – the same number that perished last week in a missile strike on a bus near the town of Volnovakha, which each side also blames on the other.

“We are shaken by the monstrous new crime in Donetsk where . . . dozens of peaceful civilians died and received injuries as a result of Ukrainian forces shelling a bus stop,” said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. “It is becoming obvious that human casualties won’t stop ‘the party of war’ in Kiev and its foreign sponsors.”

Lavrov’s meeting

Just a few hours earlier, Mr Lavrov had met his Ukrainian, German and French counterparts in Berlin for talks on ending a sharp escalation in Ukraine’s conflict.

“The most important decision is strong support for the urgent withdrawal of heavy weapons from the contact line,” Mr Lavrov said afterwards, referring to the line that should divide government and rebel forces according to a deal signed last September.

“If that withdrawal takes place,” Mr Lavrov said, “we can speak about major de-escalation of the current conflict.”

Soon after the bus was hit, however, Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said he would “move the front line” further away from the city “so Donetsk can’t be shelled”.

Mr Zakharchenko also invited Donetsk residents to vent their anger on captured Ukrainian troops who were paraded through the streets of the city and had punches, objects and abuse hurled at them.

Ukraine’s military said 10 servicemen were killed overnight from Wednesday to Thursday, six of them at the Donetsk airport complex now under almost complete rebel control after months of fighting.

Tanks destroyed

Clashes took place across a wide area on Thursday, and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said his country’s troops had “destroyed several enemy tanks” and were “firmly holding their positions”.

“Real tank battles took place. The Ukrainian armed forces won these battles,” Mr Poroshenko told national security officials on Thursday night.

On Wednesday, he claimed the rebels were now supported by 9,000 troops and hundreds of tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery pieces from Russia.

United States and Nato officials have not given figures, but they concur Russian military personnel and heavy weapons are playing a key role in Ukraine.

The conflict has badly damaged East-West relations, and German chancellor Angela Merkel said economic sanctions against Russia must remain in place. She called Russia’s annexation of Crimea last March “a violation of the values that created a peaceful order in Europe after the second World War, namely the acceptance of borders and respect of territorial integrity”.

Additional reporting from Agencies