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Ukrainian soldiers patrolled near Debaltseve, Ukraine, on Monday. Anatolii Boiko/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.
Andrew Roth reporting,
DONETSK, Ukraine — Deadly fighting has broken out again between the government and rebels around the strategically important airport outside Donetsk, a continuing source of friction that is testing the resilience of a recent cease-fire agreement.
Nine Ukrainian soldiers and three civilians were killed during heavy shelling on Sunday, government officials announced. Andriy Lysenko, an army spokesman, said seven soldiers died when a tank shell hit their troop transport. It was the deadliest attack since the cease-fire was announced on Sept. 5.
President Petro O. Poroshenko has called the cease-fire the keystone to his peace plan for the country, and in a nationally televised news conference on Thursday said he had “no doubt that the biggest, most dangerous part of the war is already behind us.”
But at important positions held by Ukrainian forces, like the airport and the city of Debaltseve, a crucial junction between the largest rebel cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, shelling has only intensified in recent days.
The upsurge in violence comes at a particularly critical moment, as Russian, Ukrainian and rebel military officials are meeting to work out the boundaries of a buffer zone of 30 kilometers, about 19 miles, that, when finalized, could mark a neutral area in a new, frozen conflict.
“The line drawn on paper does not correspond to the current positions,” said Andrei Purgin, the deputy prime minister of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, who participated in the talks in Minsk, Belarus, that led to the cease-fire.
In an interview, Mr. Purgin said that fighting was taking place at contested points on the proposed demarcation line, which he said amounted to 30 percent of the border between the rebel republics and Ukraine.
He also claimed that the Ukrainian Army was pouring in troops to defend the airport, which he likened to “a fetish.”
According to the cease-fire agreement, “the airport should be ours,” he said. “But they are not leaving it.”
A Russian Army delegation led by Aleksandr Lentsov, the deputy commander of Russia’s ground forces, has been in Ukraine since last week, and first met with Ukrainian and rebel military representatives on Friday, according to an official involved in the talks.
Russia has sought to minimize its public role in mediating the conflict, and on Friday the Russian Foreign Ministry denied it was a party to the talks.
On Saturday, however, Russian state television broadcast an interview with Mr. Lentsov in the rebel-held city of Horlivka, Ukraine.
“There are questions where we have found common ground, and some questions are problematic,” Mr. Lentsov said without elaborating in televised comments. “Our main task is a cease-fire. Both sides should understand that.”
Perhaps no question is more problematic than the Donetsk airport, which was renovated for the Euro 2012 soccer championship held in Ukraine and, if repaired, could be a vital supply line for either the fledgling rebel state or the Ukrainian military.
Speaking with several journalists on Saturday, Ihor Kolomoysky, the billionaire governor of the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk region, said that Ukraine had agreed to abandon the airport in exchange for a wide stretch of territory south of Donetsk, a quid pro quo that had previously been unreported.
Mr. Kolomoysky, who was appointed governor by Mr. Poroshenko, has played an important part in the Ukrainian war effort, bankrolling several pro-Ukrainian paramilitary battalions.
With Ukraine still reeling from a rebel counter-offensive in August, he said, the front lines will most likely remain static until spring.
Mr. Lysenko, the military spokesman, denied during a briefing on Monday that the army was planning to abandon its positions at the airport, saying it “was, is and will be under the control of the Ukrainian military.”
Nonetheless, he said, the decision belongs to his superiors.
“We have a high military command, and it decides where the Ukrainian Army moves,” he said.
While fighting raged in the east, thousands of pro-Ukrainian demonstrators in Kharkiv late Sunday evening toppled a 40-foot statue of Lenin, an anti-Russian gesture that raised the possibility of violence in what is the country’s second-largest city. Some of the protesters etched a wolfsangel, a symbol once used by the Nazis and now by Ukrainian ultranationalists, into the statue’s pedestal.
Kharkiv saw brutal street fights in March between supporters and opponents of the new Kiev government, but has quieted in recent months.
The city police made no effort to disperse the crowds. But they did announce an investigation into the episode at the same time that a protester was sawing through the leg of the statue with a chain saw.
Gennady A. Kernes, the city’s divisive and powerful mayor, promised Monday to restore the statue in an attempt to prevent a pro-Russian backlash in the city.
Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior minister and a rival of Mr. Kernes’s, barely hid his glee.
“Lenin? Let him fall,” Mr. Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.
By Olivia Crellin.
A German company is offering a $30 million bounty for the identities of the individuals responsible for downing Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine this summer.
Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are suspected of firing surface-to-air missiles at the civilian aircraft, which crashed July 17 while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board. A preliminary report carried out by Dutch investigators said that the crash was the result of structural damage caused by a large number of high-energy objects that struck the Boeing plane from the outside.
Wifka, an independent German fraud investigation company, said that the money — provided by an anonymous client — will not be given away lightly. The reward will only be delivered to someone able to give detailed information on who shot down MH17, who gave the order to shoot down the plane, and who is covering up their tracks, according to Wifka.
“After the terrible assassination or ‘accident,’ all political parties, at home and abroad, said they owed it to the victims, their families and the public to clarify the circumstances of the crash and present evidence for what happened,” the company said in a statement. “None of this has yet been done.”
The list of requirements for the reward also includes information on whether the plane was shot by accident or out of political, economic, or military motivation. The company is also seeking details of the circumstances that led to the incident, the weapon used, and what happened to the people involved.
“The money is securely deposited in Zurich, Switzerland,” Wifka said. “It will be paid there or in a different neutral place of the whistle-blower’s choice.”
The company added that their client has also offered to give the tipster a new identity if necessary.
Concessions to Rebels
Two months exactly from the day of the MH17 crash, Ukraine is still in turmoil. Despite the announcement of a ceasefire 12 days ago, Ukrainian troops have been pushed back on multiple fronts in the last two weeks.
Amnesty offers from President Petro Poroshenko to those who had not committed serious crimes in the east have been largely rejected, and Ukraine’s parliament approved laws Tuesday that give rebels de facto control of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, a move that has infuriated many protesters and activists.
Vitaly Zhuravsky, an MP who belongs to a party described as pro-Russian, was thrown by angry crowds into a dumpster.
Ukrainian lawmakers did manage to ratify an agreement Tuesday that brings the country closer to joining the European Union. The pact is the same one that former president Viktor Yanukovych backed out of signing last year, leading to the protests that sparked the revolution and ongoing conflict that has so far killed more than 3,000 and displaced 310,000.
“No nation has ever paid such a high price to become Europeans,” Poroshenko said, referring to soldiers killed in the fighting and the early deaths of anti-government protesters.
The agreement would make Ukraine compliant with EU standards in the areas of human rights, security, and arms control. It would also have removed trade barriers, but negotiations with Russia last week led to the postponement of the free-trade aspect of the agreement until 2016.
Poroshenko, a candy magnate-turned-politician who won 54 percent of the vote in the election following Yanukovych’s removal, told an audience of political experts, journalists, and senior European officials gathered in Kiev on September 13 that there could be “no military solution to this conflict.”
Despite the ceasefire, NATO officials said this week that about 1,000 Russian troops remain on Ukrainian soil. Six people were killed by crossfire when rebels attacked Donetsk airport on Sunday.
Seeking More US Aid
A diplomatic solution to the conflict will be undoubtedly be on Poroshenko’s agenda when he arrives Thursday in Washington to address Congress and speak with President Barack Obama. The country’s parliamentary elections are due to be held October 26.
More economic and military aid from the US will also be a topic of discussion, although concerns about corruption, as well as fears about escalating the military conflict with Russia, mean that Poroshenko could leave Washington empty handed.
Paving the way for more government accountability, Ukraine passed a law Tuesday that allows the removal of corrupt officials from their positions. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk has said that Ukraine will screen roughly 1 million civil servants to root out lingering corruption from the previous regime. The law targets individuals who worked under Yanukovych, as well as former senior members of the Communist Party and KGB.
The US and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have already pledged a total of $60 million in non-lethal aid, which includes food rations, body armor, and communications equipment, plus $17 billion in bailout money. Ukraine’s Central Bank says that the country’s economy may shrink up to 10 percent this year.
By LAURA MILLS.
Black smoke ascends around the Donetsk’s International Airport as shelling continues between pro-Russian forces and the Ukrainian army on September 14, 2014. © AFP
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Shelling killed six people and wounded 15 others in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, the city council said Monday — the worst reported violence since a cease-fire between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian troops took effect on Sept. 5.
Nonetheless, the cease-fire deal has brought some normalcy to parts of eastern Ukraine and allowed prisoners on both sides to go home.
Another 73 Ukrainian soldiers were freed Sunday night in an exchange with the rebels, Col. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said Monday. Donetsk rebel leader Andrei Purgin was quoted by Interfax news agency as confirming that 73 rebels had been released in return. It was the largest reported prisoner exchange amid the fighting that began in mid-April.
Fighting around Donetsk’s government-held airport has left many northern neighborhoods in the crossfire. Over the weekend, Ukraine said its troops repelled an attack of 200 rebel fighters, but suffered no military casualties.
A Pro-Russian rebels bike arranged with a communist flag, left and Russian motorcycle club “Night Wolves” flag is driven in a parade in the town of Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. Some semblance of normality is returning to parts of eastern Ukraine after a cease-fire agreement sealed between Ukrainian government forces and separatist rebels earlier this month, although exchanges of rocket fire remain a constant in some areas. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Two northern neighborhoods in Donetsk were shelled heavily Sunday, leading to the casualties and damaging both homes and offices, the city council said.
While the neighborhoods hit by shelling are under the control of the rebels, the Ukrainian government blamed the militants for the civilian casualties.
“Neither today nor yesterday nor in the previous days did Ukrainian forces shell any residential areas and settlements,” Lysenko said in Kiev on Monday.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who are overseeing the implementation of the cease-fire, said Sunday they were 200 meters (650 feet) away as four shells burst in Donetsk. The team saw one woman lying on the ground.
A Pro-Russian rebels truck with an anti-aircraft weapon is driven in a parade in the town of Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. Some semblance of normality is returning to parts of eastern Ukraine after a cease-fire agreement sealed between Ukrainian government forces and separatist rebels earlier this month, although exchanges of rocket fire remain a constant in some areas. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
The first civilian casualties in Donetsk underscore how fragile the peace may be. Both sides have made it clear that they are rearming in case the fighting starts anew.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey told Channel Five that the delivery of weapons from NATO countries, agreed upon earlier this month, was “underway.” Those comments were also made by another senior official but later denied by four of the five NATO countries he had mentioned.
On Monday, Poland’s Defense Minister Tomasz Siemonia said while Poland is not currently selling arms to Ukraine, an arms deal will be the theme of talks when Heletey visits Warsaw this month. He offered no date for the visit.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine began a month after Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March. It has claimed at least 3,000 civilian lives and forced hundreds of thousands to flee, according to the U.N.
A Pro-Russian rebels truck arranged with a communists flag, left and a flag with an Orthodox style icon depicting Jesus Christ is driven in a parade in the town of Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. Some semblance of normality is returning to parts of eastern Ukraine after a cease-fire agreement sealed between Ukrainian government forces and separatist rebels earlier this month, although exchanges of rocket fire remain a constant in some areas. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
by The Associated Press.
A picture taken on September 9, 2014 shows a Ukrainian tank destroyed by shelling from pro-Russian militants in the eastern Ukrainian Oblast of Lugansk. © AFP.
LUHANSK, Ukraine — Months of daily shelling reduced the east Ukraine city of Luhansk to a ghost town, silent but for the explosions.
On Sunday, following a cease-fire agreement signed Sept. 5, residents in the second-largest city held by pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine emerged in a rare show of jubilation that was half celebration, half simply relief at the reprieve in the violence.
The same wasn’t true of the largest rebel stronghold of Donetsk, where fighting around the government-held airport has caught many residential neighborhoods in the crossfire. The city council of Donetsk confirmed in a statement Sunday that there were civilian casualties, but couldn’t specify how many.
Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council spokesman Volodymyr Polyovyi told journalists that government troops had repelled an attack on the airport by about 200 fighters.
The cease-fire deal has been riddled by violations from the start, and both sides have made it clear that they are regrouping and rearming in case the fighting starts anew.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone late Sunday and “expressed concern about violations of the cease-fire regime,” according to a statement published on the Ukrainian leader’s website.
In Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in March, residents voted for regional parliamentary elections dominated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s backers, although the results weren’t yet available.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey told Channel Five on Saturday that delivery of weapons from NATO countries, agreed upon earlier this month, was “under way.” Another senior official announced the arms deal last week, although four of the five NATO countries he had mentioned denied those claims.
But despite repeated violations of the cease-fire and tough talk on all sides, the peace deal has allowed for a return to some kind of normalcy for cities like Luhansk, as shell-shocked residents emerge from the basements where they have been hiding for weeks and come to grips with the damage incurred by nearly five months of fighting.
Luhansk’s population of about 250,000 people, reduced because of the war, celebrated “city day” on Sunday, which opened on a somber note as priests led hundreds of residents in prayer in commemoration of those killed during a government-mounted siege of the city.
Damage to basic infrastructure left much of the city without power and running water since early August. Around Luhansk, smashed windows, burned-out buildings and craters in the road are testimony to an imprecise, often indiscriminate shelling campaign.
Across the road from the regional military enlistment office, now transformed into the headquarters of a rebel battalion, the roof of a multistory apartment building was caved in from a direct strike. Many such civilian facilities, such as restaurants, gas stations and car showrooms, are now reduced to shattered shells.
After a garbage recycling plant was damaged, trash began piling up on the streets. But while the damage remains, the streets have begun to be cleared away and electricity has returned to some parts of the city as the fragile peace sets in.
Speaking at the open-air service outside the Lady of Sorrows Church, local separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky mourned those who had been killed and in an unusually conciliatory public statement called for forgiveness for those responsible.
A Russian aid convoy carrying mainly food arrived in Luhansk on Saturday, and men in camouflage standing under a scratched-out sign reading “Strong Ukraine” on Sunday were handing out chocolate, drinking water, soap, toilet paper, diapers and other supplies to a large crowd of residents patiently waiting in line. At a nearby table, war veterans were poured complimentary shots of vodka.
As the men in fatigues handed out wares, their guns lay nearby, some propped up against the wall. Their efforts appeared as much an aid initiative as a public relations exercise necessary to prop up local support in a city where the rebel presence has caused such intense misery.
A rebel official, a Muscovite who gave his name only as the nom de guerre Makhra, told The Associated Press the aid was from Russia.
“People have gone hungry here for almost two months. We decided to celebrate city day,” he said. “In a few days, power and water should be turned back on. So people are being given hygiene products so they can properly feed themselves.”
Lilya Miroschenkovo, a 73-year old retiree waiting in line, said she hasn’t received her pension since May and has had to make do since then with her last monthly payment of $85.
“It is a good thing that vegetables were more or less affordable this year,” she said. “Meat, sausages, oil — I have bought nothing like that. It is just vegetables in one soup after another.”
At midday, a group of rebel fighters led a motley convoy made up of Night Wolves biker gang members and several battered military vehicles on a ride through the city. While a Night Wolves truck modified to look like a wolf leading the column blared out cacophonous heavy metal, vans trailing at the back played rousing Soviet-vintage military songs.
The caravan toured the city, and residents came out to wave and cheer. As it reached its final destination by the city hall, itself bearing evident signs of a bomb strike, the convoy was greeted rapturously by a crowd of several thousand people.
As conceded by even one separatist fighter, originally from the Crimean Peninsula, support for the armed rebel movement has been far from universal in Luhansk.
“Many people come to us and ask: ‘When will the war end?'” said the fighter, who identified himself by the nom de guerre Maestro, while sitting atop an armored personnel carrier.
“Our answer is always the same,” he said. “As soon as you get … off the couch, stop swilling beer and go fight instead.”
Laura Mills reported from Kiev.
by LAURA MILLS.
Russian trucks with Russian flags, intended to carry humanitarian aid for eastern Ukraine are stationed ready for another possible trip near Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has largely held. (AP Photo)
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine is “still in a state of war” with neighboring Russia despite a cease-fire between Kiev’s forces and Moscow-backed rebels in the east, the country’s prime minister said Saturday shortly after a second convoy of Russian trucks rolled into Ukraine.
Speaking at a conference with politicians and business leaders in Kiev, Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “goal is to take the entire Ukraine.”
“He cannot cope with the idea that Ukraine would be a part of a big EU family. He wants to restore the Soviet Union,” Yatsenyuk said.
He didn’t mention the second convoy of Russian trucks that entered rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine earlier Saturday, reportedly filled with almost 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid.
The last truck crossed onto Ukrainian soil early Saturday from the Russian border town Donetsk, some 200 kilometers (120 miles) miles east of the Ukrainian city with the same name, Rayan Farukshin, a spokesman for Russia’s customs agency, told the Associated Press by phone. He could not confirm the number of trucks, but news agency ITAR TASS reported that about 250 trucks were heading toward the city Luhansk.
The Russian emergency ministry, which coordinated previous humanitarian aid deliveries to Ukraine, could not be reached for comment about the convoy.
Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, told journalists Saturday that the convoy had crossed “illegally” onto Ukrainian territory.
“Ukraine border guards and customs were not allowed to examine the cargo and vehicles,” he said. “Representatives of the Red Cross don’t accompany the cargo, nobody knows what’s inside.”
Lysenko’s relatively mild comments on the second convoy and the silence of more senior Ukrainian officials shows how dramatically the mood has shifted in the Kiev government since August. President Petro Poroshenko has been at pains to prove that last week’s cease-fire deal has yielded improvements on the ground in east Ukraine. On Friday, he lauded the deal, which has been riddled by violations since it was imposed last week, as a “fragile but efficient peace process.”
In August, Ukrainian officials said that a first convoy of humanitarian aid from Russia would be seen as an invasion of the country, and loudly protested any attempts by Russia to unilaterally bring in the aid. Eventually Russia sent its trucks across the border and into rebel-held territory without the oversight of the International Red Cross, contrary to an agreement signed between Ukraine and Russia.
A representative of the ICRC’s Moscow office said they had not been informed about the current convoy, either.
“We were not officially notified of an agreement between Moscow and Kiev to ship the cargo,” Galina Balzamova said Saturday.
A Ukrainian army helicopter flies over their positions in Debaltsevo, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. The cease-fire between the separatists and the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine has largely held. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Lysenko said that six Ukrainian servicemen had died since the truce. He also confirmed that 12 rebel fighters had been killed by Ukrainian forces near Sea of Azov city of Mariupol, where he said they were doing reconnaissance work — the first such admission that they have inflicted casualties on the rebel side since the cease-fire began.
In a statement posted online early Saturday, the Donetsk city council said that there had been fighting near the airport throughout the night. Two shells had hit residential buildings in the area but no casualties were reported.
Continuous rocket fire could be heard overnight in downtown Donetsk, and a column of three GRAD rocket launchers — all its rockets still in place — was seen moving freely through the rebel-held city on Saturday morning.
(Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Peter Leonard in Donetsk, Ukraine contributed reporting).