Fearing Kiev's Jets, Ukraine's Rebels Hold Their Ground

'In Kiev they say that this is the army of our people, so why are they coming here to shoot at the people?' A report from the rebel-held streets of the Donetsk People's Republic.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A woman cries as pro-Russia militants parade to mark Donetsk and Lugansk regions' independence from Ukraine in Donetsk on May 25, 2014
A woman cries as pro-Russia militants parade to mark Donetsk and Lugansk regions' independence from Ukraine in Donetsk on May 25, 2014Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

DONETSK - A city of a million inhabitants in eastern Ukraine which less than two years ago hosted the Euro 2012 Soccer semi-final was paralyzed Wednesday while pro-Russian separatists in the city prepared to fight for the city and around it large forces of the Ukrainian Army were deployed for what could be a bloody battle.

Since Monday morning, when the Ukrainian Air Force bombed separatists who had taken control of Donetsk Airport, killing around fifty of them, every appearance of an aircraft over the city sends people scurrying. Early Tuesday Ukrainian Mig-29 fighters passed low over the city-center, near the SBU (Ukrainian security service) headquarters currently in the hands of the separatists. Volleys were fired from the roof, but no apparent damage was caused to the jets.

At the entrance to Shorsa Street, leading to the headquarters, local supporters were erecting a concrete barrier in fear that a ground operation will be the next stage.

People and furniture were being evacuated from an adjacent building serving the local fire department. "This is the only route to attack this place, the other routes go through residential buildings and a hospital" explained one of the armed separatists guarding the barrier.

At the northern exit from the city, on Kievskaya Prospekt leading to the airport, where Ukrainian paratroopers are now positioned, a series of barriers has been erected from tires, blocks of concretes and abandoned vehicles, including the Russian military truck that was bombed by Ukrainian helicopters on Monday while carrying fighters from the Vostok Battalion, which includes Russian "volunteers" supporting the separatists. The volunteers include veterans of the war in Chechnya.

At the barriers closer to the residential areas stand locals, some in their fifties and sixties, carrying old shotguns and antiquated hunting rifles. "This was my grandfather's rifle and if it was good enough for him, then I can use it against the fascists' helicopters," said Mikhail, who wouldn't give his surname.

Many families could be seen leaving the area or taking shelter in underground cellars. There were no soldiers Tuesday from the Ukrainian Army within the city, and though the local police continued to drive around the city, they weren't taking sides or interfering with the separatists.

Even after Sunday's presidential elections, which were won by Petro Poroshenko, there is a great deal of anger in Donetsk toward the Kiev government. "We didn't mind that they got rid of [former President Viktor] Yanukovych, he was the head of a corrupt group" said Vladimiri Artumin, a local accountant. "But in his place came other corrupt groups and that's the people who run Kiev. In their media they call the people here terrorists- but these are good people protecting us and our families."

Sergei Kirilinko, one of the residents helping to build up the barriers said that "in Kiev they say that this is the army of our people, so why are they coming here to shoot at the people?" But others see the city's new rulers in a different light. "There's a terrible fear now in the streets, Acts of violence and looting by the gunmen that no one is stopping," says a local businessman who asked not to be identified. "It's primarily the fault of the Kiev government that neglected this region for so long and now the local people are paying the price."

The streets are ruled by the men of the Vostok Battalion who drive around heavily armed, and with a distinctive black armband. On Tuesday on the main Shevchenko Avenue, just by the local administration building, they captured, tied and put a man in a car trunk.

The man who seems to be in charge of them is Alexander Borodai, a Russian politician and ultra-nationalist who last week was appointed - in an unclear process - the first prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic. On Tuesday, Borodai arrived, accompanied by a small convoy of Vostok Battalion gunmen filled SUVs, to brief the international press in Donetsk. He presented himself as a "conflict management expert" who had been asked to come to Donetsk to help the city's population. He claimed to be in control of "the different guerilla groups" operating in the region and denied claims that they included also criminals. Regarding reports that Chechnyan and Ossetian "volunteers" were also operating in Donetsk, he said that "there are no foreign fighters here. Only Russian men who have come to defend Russian people on Russian soil."

Despite reports that Borodai is connected to the Russian government, the Kremlin officially denies all connection with what is going on in Donetsk.

On Tuesday, a team of four observers of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) disappeared in Donetsk. Borodai said his men were searching for them and raised the possibility that "someone kidnapped them as a provocation." The Donetsk People's Republic, he said, was prepared to negotiate with Kiev- but first all the Ukrainian Army forces have to retreat from the region.

"We lost men, but we still have enough men and weapons to fight if the army comes," he said. When asked whether Donetsk could become a second Grozny, the capital of Chechnya which was destroyed during the war between Russians and Chechens, Borodai answered that he could not rule that out but that it would be the fault of the Ukrainian Army.

As of Wednesday night, the Ukrainians did not seem to be building on the momentum achieved on Monday morning with the attack on the separatists at the airport. For over two days there hasn't been a significant attack but at different locations in south-east Ukraine, large armored forces of the Ukrainian Army have been preparing for what security sources are calling "a flushing-out of the nests of terror in Donetsk."

Pro-Russian gunmen take positions near the airport, outside Donetsk, Ukraine, on May 26, 2014. Credit: AP

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