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Sunday 18 January 2015

Ukraine's Military: Troops Retake Most of Donetsk Airport

The Ukrainian military said it has cleared pro-Russia rebels from much of the Donetsk airport in a massive overnight operation.

The clashes killed four Ukrainian soldiers Sunday and injured dozens more in the past 24 hours in what has been a bloody, months-long battle for control of the facility, military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said.

News organizations were unable to verify the statements.

Ukrainian troops retook almost all the territory Ukraine had lost to separatists in recent weeks, Lysenko said on Sunday.

The army's offensive at the airport brought the fighting close to the city of Donetsk itself, center of a pro-Russian separatist rebellion. Residents reported intensified outgoing shelling including from residential areas in central parts of the separatist-held city.

"The decision was taken for a mass operation. ... We succeeded in almost completely cleaning the territory of the airport, which belongs to the territory of Ukrainian forces as marked by military separation lines," Lysenko said in a televised briefing.

​​​​"It is not a violation of Minsk agreements, because Ukrainian soldiers stay in their positions, they adhere to the cease-fire regime, and they shoot only in return," he added.

Lysenko explained the operation had returned the battle lines near the airport to the previous status quo and that the Ukrainian army had thus not violated the Minsk 12-point peace plan agreed with Russia and separatist leaders last September.

The cease-fire agreed upon at the talks in the capital of Belarus in early September has been regularly violated from the start by both sides.

High-level peace talks expected to take place in Kazakhstan on Thursday were postponed indefinitely. With talks stalled, pro-Russian rebels have stepped up attacks in the past week, seizing from government troops parts of the airport, which is of strategic value to both sides.
Ukraine rushed fresh troops and supplies to the airport near the Russian border as violence escalated in recent days.

Peace march in Kyiv

A peace march Sunday in Kyiv drew thousands of people to the streets of the capital to pray for peace and to honor civilian victims of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Accompanied by other top government officials, President Petro Poroshenko told a crowd of several thousand gathered that Ukraine wouldn't "give up an inch" of its land to Russian-backed separatists.

Poroshenko also spoke of the victims of last week's rocket strike near a commuter bus in Volnovakha that killed 13 people, the worst single loss of civilian life since a September truce.
The World Health Organization said more than 4,800 people have been killed in the conflict since April 2014, between Kyiv's forces and separatists, whom the West says are supported and armed by Russia.

Russia denies its troops are involved or that it is funneling military equipment to the separatists.
Russia voiced concern Sunday over the escalation of fighting in eastern Ukraine and said President Vladimir Putin had written to Poroshenko proposing the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the front line.

"We are extremely concerned about the latest developments. The bombardments of residential areas have resumed in Donetsk and people are dying once more," said Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, according to Russian news agencies.

With its runways pitted and cratered, the airport itself, with a multistory control tower and extensive outbuildings, has long since ceased to function.

But its hulk, battered by shelling and gunfire, has taken on symbolic value for both sides with troops and separatists hunting each other often at close range in a deadly cat-and-mouse game among the ruins.

Some material for this report came from Reuters, AFP and AP.

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