MARIUPOL – Ukrainian government forces are preparing to expand their operation against pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country. The operation was launched on Monday morning after the separatists tried to take control of the airport in the city of Donetsk.
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President-elect Petro Poroshenko has said that the operation, which includes air strikes and the deployment of commando units, will continue until the separatists have been removed from all the cities and facilities they have occupied in recent months. Over 50 separatists are believed to have been killed in the operation so far.
The pro-Russian separatists, for their part, have said that they are prepared to fight until they die.
Most of the fighting to date has been in Donetsk where, in addition to attacking separatists occupying the airport and its environs, government forces have attacked several vehicles carrying reinforcements from the Russian border area.
Clashes between government forces and separatists continued through Monday, despite the statement by Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov that the airport had been recaptured.
In other cities, including Sloviansk, Lugansk and Mariupol, separatists remain in control of building in the city centers.
Government forces attempted to rout the separatists in central Mariupol on Sunday night, but were forced to withdraw from the city after heavy exchanges of fire with the separatists for several hours.
Mariupol, Ukraine's tenth largest city and a strategic point between the Russian border and Russia-occupied Crimea, was tense but quiet on Tuesday. Ukrainian National Guard forces manned roadblocks around the city, preventing the entrance of reinforcements for the separatists, while the latter continued to fortify their positions in the city's old town area.
Mariupol has turned into a center of opposition to the Kiev government, following a failed attempt by the army to repel the separatists during the traditional remembrance day ceremonies on May 9 marking the end of World War II.
"They came last night and fired on us," said a separatist leader in charge of building sandbag defenses in the old town. "We took cover and they decided not to advance. We will continue to stay here in order to guard our families and homes."
He vehemently denied government claims that Russian volunteers from Ossetia and Chechnya were fighting in the ranks of the separatists. "Everyone here is from Mariupol," he said.
"They are trying to brand us as terrorists, but they are the real terrorists. The Ukrainian army is in fact a cover for Yarosh's people (a reference to Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the Right Sector movement.)"
The separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk announced their total separation from Ukraine on the weekend and the establishment of a new state, Novorossiya. At the barricades in Mariupol, they flew the flags of Russia and Novorossiya, with its Russian symbols from tsarist times.
"At the beginning, the protests here were only against the government's failure to invest here," said Kasanya Lidliva, a local lawyer and supporter of the separatists. "It's an industrial area which contributes a lot to the Ukrainian economy. But after the National Guard attack on May 9 and the many deaths that it caused, all the residents moved to the other side. Today we see who the junta in Kiev is calling 'terrorists' – fighters who are defending us."
Not all the city's residents hold that view, however. A businessman who asked not to be identified, told how "the separatists entered shops and banks, demanding money and goods. Many of the shops were forced to close. The city is dying and businesses are going bankrupt because of the weakness of Kiev, which has not succeeded in removing those people from here.
"If Russia wanted to conquer the area, as they did in Crimea, they could do so with ease. No-one would stop them. Right now, everyone is suffering and it doesn’t seem as if Russia even wants this area. It only wants to stir things up," he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have called on Ukraine to immediately halt its operation in eastern Ukraine. They promised before Sunday's election that they would cooperate with the government that was elected, but Putin has not yet phoned to congratulate Poroshenko and there has been no indication when they will meet.
Poroshenko, for his part, promised to immediately enter into an "open dialogue" with the residents of the south-eastern part of the country, but he is currently promising to continue the military operation and to defeat "within hours" the separatists who he calls "murderers and terrorists."