Donetsk calm after clashes

Calm has been restored to Donetsk after violent clashes following the election of Petro Poroshenko.

FILE IMAGE. Calm has been restored to Donetsk after clashes following the election of pro-European leader Petro Poroshenko. Picture: AFP

DONETSK - Relative calm returned to the streets of Donetsk on Wednesday after the biggest battle of the pro-Russian separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine, a conflict transformed by the landslide election of a pro-European leader who vowed to crush the revolt.

Reuters reporters heard sounds of distant gunfire coming from the south of the city and local media reported brief outbreaks of fighting on the outskirts, although this could not be independently confirmed.

However, this appeared minor compared with on Monday and Tuesday when government forces killed dozens of rebel fighters in an assault to retake Donetsk International Airport, which the rebels had seized the morning after Ukrainians overwhelmingly elected Petro Poroshenko as president.

Pro-Moscow gunmen have declared the city of a million people capital of an independent Donetsk People's Republic. On Wednesday their leader Denis Pushilin appealed again for Russia's help. "The residents of the Donetsk People's Republic are on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe," he said. "We are Russians and this is precisely why they are killing us. We want to become part of Russia."

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of pushing Ukraine into "the abyss of fratricidal war", and reiterated his call for an end to Kiev's military offensive. His ministry urged Kiev to let it send humanitarian aid to civilians trapped by the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

The rebels' plight puts pressure on President Vladimir Putin to act, even though he has reduced the number of forces he has massed on Ukraine's eastern border and has said he would recognise the outcome of Sunday's election in Ukraine.

Rebel fighters were strengthening their barricades with sandbags on the road to the airport near the hulk of a truck where many of them were killed by government fire on Monday.

The assault was the first time Kiev has unleashed its full military force against the fighters after weeks of restraint. Morgues were filled on Tuesday with bodies of rebel gunmen, some missing limbs.

The separatist authorities say as many as 50 died, including a truckload of wounded fighters blasted apart as they were driven away from the battlefield. The government said it suffered no losses in the operation, when its aircraft strafed the airport and paratroops landed to reclaim it.