DONETSK, Ukraine – Ukraine’s president-elect said Monday he wants to begin talks with Moscow and end a pro-Russia insurgency in the east, but the rebels escalated the conflict by occupying a major airport, and the government in Kiev responded with an airstrike.
As darkness fell in Donetsk, a city of about 1 million, it was unclear who was in control of the airport. Hundreds of fighters of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic had been brought by trucks to a wooded area on the fringes of the airport, many of them armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and automatic rifles. At least one warplane streaked over the city, firing flares, and explosions were heard from the direction of the airport.
The rebels, who declared independence for Donetsk and the neighboring Luhansk region after a hastily called and dubious referendum two weeks ago, regarded Sunday’s election of candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko as president to be illegitimate.
In a victory speech, the billionaire promised to open a dialogue with residents of eastern Ukraine and to guarantee their rights. The rebels and many others in the region say they fear the February ouster of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych will lead to the repression of its predominantly Russian-speaking population by Ukrainian nationalists.
Poroshenko said he would not negotiate with armed insurgents he calls terrorists.
Peace can only be achieved through a dialogue with people, he said Monday. This process cannot be stopped with the use of arms only; arms can be used exclusively against killers and terrorists.
Russia has heavily criticized an offensive by Ukraine’s military against the rebels. Poroshenko said he wants it to end quickly.
But aggression by rebels, as at the Donetsk airport, could make it impossible for Ukrainian forces to back off.
News reports said scores of armed insurgents descended on the airport about 3 a.m., and all flights were canceled. Heavy gunfire broke out, Ukrainian fighter jets and helicopters flew overhead, and dense black smoke rose in the air.
Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian operation, wrote on his Facebook account that the military had given an ultimatum to the gunmen occupying the airport to disarm. They didn’t comply, he said, and the military launched an airstrike.
Sunday’s presidential balloting was praised by international observers as a genuine election, saying it was held freely and fairly.