DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's president-elect said Monday he wants to begin talks with Moscow and end a pro-Russia insurgency in the east, but the rebels escalated the conflict by occupying a major airport, and the government in Kiev responded with an airstrike.
As darkness fell in Donetsk, a city of about 1 million in eastern Ukraine, it was unclear who was in control of the airport. Hundreds of fighters of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic had been brought by trucks to a wooded area on the fringes of the airport, many of them armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and automatic rifles. At least one warplane streaked over the city, firing flares, and explosions were heard from the direction of the airport.
Early Tuesday, the DPR said on its Twitter account that a truck carrying wounded from the airport area came under fire and that the driver was killed.
The rebels, who declared independence for Donetsk and the neighboring Luhansk region after a hastily called and dubious referendum two weeks ago, regarded Sunday's election of candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko as president to be illegitimate.
In a victory speech, the billionaire promised to open a dialogue with residents of eastern Ukraine and to guarantee their rights. The rebels and many others in the region say they fear the February ouster of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych will lead to the repression of its predominantly Russian-speaking population by Ukrainian nationalists.
Poroshenko also said he would not negotiate with armed insurgents that he calls terrorists.
"Peace can only be achieved through a dialogue with people," he said Monday. "This process cannot be stopped with the use of arms only; arms can be used exclusively against killers and terrorists."
Russia has heavily criticized an offensive by Ukraine's military against the rebels, and Poroshenko indicated he wants it to end quickly.
"The anti-terrorist operation cannot and should not last two or three months," he said. "It should and will last hours."
But aggression by rebels, as at the Donetsk airport, could make it impossible for Ukrainian forces to back off.
News reports said scores of armed insurgents descended on the airport about 3 a.m., and all flights were canceled. Heavy gunfire broke out, Ukrainian fighter jets and helicopters flew overhead, and dense black smoke rose in the air.
Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian operation, wrote on his Facebook account that the military had given an ultimatum to the gunmen occupying the airport to disarm. They didn't comply, he said, and the military launched an airstrike.
Denis Pushilin, a leader of the separatists, said they sent their men to the airport after some of their supporters were detained, but news reports cited the airport's press service as saying the insurgents were demanding Ukrainian forces be withdrawn from around the facility.
Donetsk news outlets, citing an unidentified health official, reported that two people were injured and one person killed by gunfire at the city's main train station. In Slovyansk, a city about 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the north that has seen sustained clashes, an Associated Press reporter saw the bodies of an elderly woman and a young man following mortar fire from a government position.
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