Ukrainian forces regain control of airport

UKRAINIAN FORCES took back control of an airport in the east of the country last night in their first significant armed clash with pro-Russian separatists.

Acting Ukraine president Oleksandr Turchynov announced the seizure which followed his ordering of an “anti-terrorist operation” against the separatists who had seized control of numerous buildings. Speaking to parliament in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Mr Turchynov announced that the Kramatorsk airport had been secured.

Kramatorsk is just south of the city of Slovyansk, 100 miles from the Russian border, which has come under the increasing control of the gunmen who seized it last weekend.

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“I’m convinced that there will not be any terrorists left soon in Donetsk and other regions and they will find themselves in the dock – this is where they belong,” Mr Turchynov said.

Earlier in the day, at least 14 armoured personnel carriers with Ukrainian flags, helicopters and military trucks were seen parked 24 miles north of Slovyansk. Other heavy military equipment appeared nearby, along with at least seven busloads of government troops in black military fatigues.

“We are awaiting the order to move on Slovyansk,” said one soldier.

Two of the helicopters loaded with troops were later seen taking off and flying towards Slovyansk. Witnesses said helicopters delivered several dozen troops to the Kramatorsk airfield.

Roads into Slovyansk were dotted with militia’s checkpoints, at least one with a Russian flag. Another bore a sign reading: “If we don’t do it, nobody will.”

One video posted online showed a hapless Ukrainian tank stuck in the mud in a field reportedly outside Slovyansk. Local residents chased it on foot, trying to stop it, shouting: “Who are you going to fire at?”

The insurgents, many of them armed, continued to occupy government, police and other administrative buildings in at least nine cities in the country’s Russian-speaking east demanding broader autonomy and closer ties with Russia.

Before the clash at Kramatorsk, Russia had strongly warned Kiev against using force against the pro-Russian protesters, saying Moscow could walk out of the international conference in Geneva tomorrow that is devoted to the Ukrainian crisis.

“You can’t send in tanks and at the same time hold talks. The use of force would sabotage the opportunity offered by the four-party negotiations in Geneva,” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said.

Speaking last night, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Russia had “violated the fundamental principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and the right of every democratic country to choose its own future”.

“If we do not defend those principles in Ukraine, including over Crimea, they will be threatened elsewhere in Europe and around the world,” he said.

The Richmond MP continued: “We are at a crucial moment in this crisis. Russia must choose whether it is open to diplomacy and de-escalation, and if it decides otherwise, we must be ready for a different state of relations with Russia in the next 10 years than in the last 10.”

Ukraine’s battle for identity in pictures: Page 11.