The ongoing battle between Ukrainian national forces and pro-Russian separatists has intensified around the eastern city of Slovyansk, reports agency journalists working with the Balkans division of news network Al-Jazeera today.
Clashes between the Ukrainian army and separatists, among them fighters allied with the self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk, intensified in the vicinity of Donetsk’s international airport, which was this week subject to bombing by the national army as it seeks to wrest control back from the occupiers, who desire union with the Russian Federation.
Caption:DONETSK, UKRAINE – MAY 26: A pro-Russian separatist fighter take position outside the Donetsk airport, the scene of an hours-long battle between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, on May 26, 2014 in Donetsk Ukraine. A day after businessman Petro Poroshenko won Ukraine’s presidential election, separatists occupied the airport, leading to a military response. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
According to the Anatolian News Agency (Anadolu), Ukrainian troops had penetrated the airport amid fierce resistance from occupying forces. The sounds of warning sirens were reported and ‘strong’ detonations rang out over the local area. Combatants of the two sides then began fighting.
Slovyansk, also known as Sloviansk and Slavjansk, has already seen large numbers of its residents flee the fighting, while remaining residents spent the last few nights seeking shelter in basements and hastily constructed bomb shelters as they fear the battle spreading to the streets of the industrial city, an epicentre of Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking minority. Some of the fiercest clashes have occurred in the surburban village of Semenovka.
The Ukrainian armed forces say they have carried out their operations in Slovyansk in order to gain a foothold in the restive east and commence ‘anti-terrorism’ operations to flush out separatists, especially those entrenched in the main city of Donetsk. Around two hundred children and twenty-one families had fled Slovyansk for the Crimea after an attack was launched on a local hospital.
The media centre of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk claimed that at least six members of the pro-Russian forces have been killed in clashes within the past twenty-four hours. Last week, a Ukrainian helicopter was shot down over the area, killing several soldiers and a high-ranking commander and dozens of pro-Russian separatists have also died or been evicted. The Ukrainian bid to reclaim Donetsk airport is believed to have resulted in the deaths of fifty militants on the Russian side.
The civil war in Ukraine began earlier this year after Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian president of the Ukraine was overthrown in a popular revolution fuelled by Ukrainian speakers’ desires to forge closer links with the European Union and move away from dependency on Russia. After a series of protests marred by killings and atrocities, Yanukovich fled the country and allegedly resurfaced in the Russian capital Moscow. Russian speakers in the east of Ukraine, its industrial heartland, feared being sidelined by the new government and began demanding referenda and union with their compatriots across the border. Separatists began occupying police stations and government buildings in the cities of Luhansk, Donetsk and Slovyansk. Russian speakers in the Crimean peninsula also rose up against the post-revolution government in Kiev and later the whole of the area, once part of Russia and gifted to Ukraine during the Soviet era and recently home to the Russian Black Sea navy fleet, was first occupied by separatists then annexed formally by the Russians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been accused of aiding and abetting the separatists in eastern Ukraine, which he has denied. However, people dressed in Russian military uniforms and armed with weapons sourced from the country have been sighted in the war zone. Mercenaries from as far away as Chechnya have also been reportedly spotted. Russia however has largely rebuffed the separatists’ demands to unite with them, and the Russian President has instead proposed talks aimed at settling the crisis and giving greater autonomy to eastern Ukraine. Both the previous and current governments in Kiev have vowed to end the rebellion. Both the occupation of the Crimea and alleged Russian backing of the separatist movements in eastern Ukraine have been condemned by both the European Union and the United States.