By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times
MOSCOW — Ukrainian forces launched combat operations against pro-Russian separatists Tuesday and recaptured a military airport in the eastern part of the country, the acting president said.
Explosions and gunfire were heard from around the airport, located between the towns of Kramatorsk and Slavyansk. Both towns were seized last week by armed separatists, said the UNIAN news agency.
A Ukrainian SU-24 jet flew over the airport firing at separatist positions, and troops using armored vehicles followed with a ground assault, the report said.
Acting Ukrainian President Olexandr Turchinov told the Supreme Rada, or parliament, that he had received information that the airport had been recaptured.
“They have called from the Donetsk region to say that Ukrainian commandos have liberated the airport from the terrorists in the town of Kramatorsk,” he said.
Rossiya-24, a Russian television news network, said between four and 11 people were killed. The network did not say how many died on each side.
The leader of a local separatist force, Sergei Tsyplakov, earlier told Russian television’s Vesti news program earlier that Ukrainian armored personnel carriers opened fire at his forces near the airport, injuring two of his men.
Earlier in the day, the Ukraine Security Service identified the leader of the armed group holding a police station and administrative building in Slavyansk as a Russian military intelligence officer.
Security Service agents said the man, identified as Igor Strelkov, tried to recruit them earlier in April to capture administrative buildings in the eastern industrial center of Kharkiv, an agency spokesman told UNIAN.
The agency said Strelkov was heard in an intercepted telephone conversation Monday speaking to a coordinator about an ambush in which one Ukraine Security Service senior officer was killed and four others were wounded.
In earlier remarks to parliament Tuesday, Turchinov said an “anti-terrorist operation” had begun in the northern part of the Donetsk region.
He said the Ukrainian military would be careful to protect civilians. “There are hundreds of thousands of people … deceived by the Russian propaganda, and there are thousands of innocent Ukrainians nearby. This is why any anti-terrorist operation should be conducted with maximum balance and responsibility, as its goal is to protect people,” he said in remarks distributed by parliament’s news service.
Demonstrators outside parliament demanded tougher action, including distribution of arms to civilian volunteers. Turchinov said that would only increase the chance that weapons would fall into the wrong hands.
“Go work in the police or join the ranks of the National Guard,” Turchinov said. “To break windows in the Supreme Rada is not an act of heroism.”
Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT