DONETSK, Ukraine (CBS News/CBSDC/AP) — At least 30 bodies of killed fighters have been brought to a hospital following a day of heavy fighting in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, in which the government forces used combat jets against pro-Russia rebels, an insurgent said Tuesday.
The rebel fighter, who wouldn’t give his name because of security concerns, said outside the hospital in Donetsk that 30 bodies of his fellow insurgents were delivered there.
He said the truck carrying the bodies was still parked outside the hospital, waiting for explosives experts to check it for any unexploded ordnance.
According to the Reuters news agency, Donetsk Mayor Alexander Lukyanchenko put the death toll at 40, though he said it wasn’t clear how many were rebels. He said two civilians were among the dead.
Early Tuesday, a group of unidentified men stormed Donetsk’s main ice-hockey arena, which was to host the 2015 world championships and set it ablaze, according to the mayor’s office.
In the neighboring Luhansk region, the Ukrainian Border Guards Service said that its officers engaged in a gunbattle with a group of gunmen who were trying to break through the border from Russia. It said one intruder was wounded and the border guards seized several vehicles loaded with Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket grenade launchers and explosives.
Donetsk, a city of 1 million, saw heavy fighting Monday, when rebels moved to seize the city airport, Ukraine’s second largest, and were repelled by government forces, which used combat jets and helicopter gunships.
The airport’s status was unclear early on Tuesday: Reuters reports separatists “have been battling Ukrainian forces after seizing the city’s international airport on Monday.”
Associated Press journalists witnessed sustained intensive gun fire throughout the day and into the night. Plumes of black smoke rose in the air.
Officials closed the airport, and police shut nearby streets for traffic. The city mayor went on television advising residents to stay at home.
Monday’s battle came just as billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko claimed victory in Sunday’s presidential vote. Poroshenko has vowed to negotiate a peaceful end to an insurgency in the east, where rebels have seized government offices and fought Ukrainian troops for more than a month.
Yet Poroshenko described the separatists as “Somali pirates,” saying that arms should be used against “killers and terrorists,” but he also indicated that he wants a quick end to the military operation in the east.
“The anti-terrorist operation cannot and should not last two or three months,” he said. “It should and will last hours.”
Poroshenko, known for his pragmatism, supports building strong ties with Europe but also has stressed the importance of mending relations with Moscow.
Upon claiming victory, he said his first step as president would be to visit the east. He said he hoped Russia would support his efforts to bring stability and that he wanted to hold talks with Moscow.
Russia welcomed his intention to engage in talks with people in the east and said it would be ready to work with Poroshenko.
Poroshenko is yet to be sworn in and the date for his inauguration hasn’t yet been set.
The interim government, meanwhile, pledged to press ahead with the operation against insurgents, which has angered local residents, many of whom see the authorities in Kiev as nationalists bent on repressing Russian speakers in the east.
Russia has denied accusations by the Ukrainian interim government and the West that it has fomented the insurgency in the east. Russian President Vladimir Putin has stonewalled the insurgents’ appeal to join Russia and welcomed the Ukrainian presidential election in an apparent bid to de-escalate tensions with the West, which has plunged to a post-Cold War low after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
But Russia has kept pushing for Ukraine to decentralize its government, which would give more power to regions, including those in the east, and wants Kiev to withdraw its troops from the area.
Separately, Ukraine claimed Tuesday that Russia owes it 2.2 billion cubic meters of natural gas worth about $1 billion. Reuters quotes Ukraine’s prime minister, Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, as saying Tuesday that Moscow “stole” the gas when it annexed Crimea.
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