KIEV/DONETSK: Ukraine’s government vowed yesterday to press ahead with a military offensive against separatists, despite a deadly attack on an army helicopter, amid increasing reports that fighters from Russia have been involved in rebellions in the east.
President-elect Petro Poroshenko, who scored an overwhelming first-round victory in a poll on May 25, swore to punish those responsible for the shooting down on Thursday of the helicopter near Slaviansk, which killed 14 servicemen including a general.
Acting Defence Minister Mykhilo Koval, repeating charges that Russia was carrying out “special operations” in the east of Ukraine, said on Friday that Ukrainian forces would continue with military operations in border areas “until these regions begin to live normally, until there is peace”.
Elsewhere in Ukraine’s troubled eastern regions, a separatist group detained a second four-person team of monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Vienna-based OSCE said. Last Monday separatists in another area detained a four-man OSCE team and have not yet released them.
Ukrainian authorities have long alleged that the rebellions have been fomented by Moscow among the largely Russian-speaking population, which is especially vulnerable to cross-border propaganda hostile to Kiev’s “Euro-Maidan” revolution that overthrew Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich in February.
Reports by Ukrainian border authorities and journalists on the ground now appear to show increasing evidence of direct involvement by fighters from Russia in the rebellions that erupted two months ago in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
According to these reports, fighters may be coming into Ukraine from former hotspots in Russia and its North Caucasus fringes such as Chechnya whose own troubles in the past 20 years have spawned a proliferation of armed groups.
Ukraine’s authorities say Russian border guards are doing nothing to stop fighters crossing the long land border from Russia, along with truck loads of ammunition and weapons.
In the latest such report, Ukrainian border guards said yesterday they had seized a cache of weapons including guns, machine-guns, grenade-launchers, sniper rifles and 84 boxes of live ammunition in two cars they stopped as they crossed from Russia.
A total of 13 people were detained, the border guard service said in a statement on its website.
Reuters correspondents in Donetsk, an industrial city and one of the main separatist centres, saw coffins loaded onto a vegetable truck on Thursday and driven off after being told by rebels that “volunteers” from Russia killed earlier in the week in an army offensive were being repatriated.
An official of the Ukrainian border guard service said on Friday that bodies of slain Russian nationals were being allowed to return to Russia for humanitarian reasons.
“We don’t need them to fertilise the land of Ukraine,” Serhiy Astakhov, an aide to the head of the border guard service, said in Kiev in reply to a journalist’s question.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov says weapons that could only have been brought in from Russia were found at the scene of Donetsk airport after it was cleared of rebels.
The reports have revived Russia-West tensions that had eased slightly after Moscow pulled back thousands of its troops from the border with Ukraine in what the United States described as a “promising sign”.
The U.S. State Department said on Thursday that Secretary of State John Kerry had pressed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to end all Russian support for separatists and call on them to lay down their arms.
Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said Russia was clearly behind the violent unrest, though there were no immediately effective steps the West could take to stop it.
Poroshenko, a 48-year-old wealthy businessman who has emerged as a national leader from six months of turmoil, will plunge into a hectic round of meetings with world leaders next week with the fate of his country on their minds.
He will hold talks on the crisis with U.S. President Barack Obama in Warsaw on June 3-4 when both men attend events marking Poland’s emergence from communist rule.