bne IntelliNews -
Russian-backed rebels have reportedly repulsed a Ukrainian attempt to recapture Donetsk Airport, inflicting heavy losses on Ukrainian government forces, according to reports on social networks. Meanwhile, in Berlin, progress was made towards establishing a demarcation line for a ceasefire.
Facebook posts by volunteer supporters, who supply food and non-lethal equipment to fighters on the front line, say that heavy Ukrainian losses came when rebels seized the first and third floors of the airport's new terminal, and used explosives to cause a ceiling to collapse on government forces on the second floor, on January 20.
George Tuka, head of the People's Home Front volunteer group, wrote on Facebook that 37 Ukrainian fighters had died as a result, others were captured or pulled out. Other volunteers writing on Facebook mentioned the same number of casualties. Videos posted by rebels on the Internet and Russian TV footage showed around 20 captured Ukrainian soldiers, including a commander, forced to kneel on the ground.
Dmitro Yarosh, MP and leader of the Right Sector ultra-nationalist group, was reported wounded in the fighting, in which Oleksandr Turchinov, head of Ukraine's national security and defence council, was also said to have been present.
The reported failure to retake the airport would mark Ukraine's biggest military set-back since losing around 200 men near the town of Ilovaisk, at the end of August, after they were encircled and decimated by artillery fire, reportedly from Russian units following a cross-border incursion. Ukraine subsequently agreed to a ceasefire.
According to reports, after the airport was seized by rebels on January 16, Ukraine’s General Staff launched a counter-attack, planning to surround the airport and seal off the rebels, and then push other rebels units farther back from it. This involved a large-scale artillery bombardment of the district on January 18, and clashes between Ukrainian troops and rebels in Donetsk itself.
But the plan ran into trouble in the airport itself, when separatists seized the first and third floors of the airport’s new terminal, according to Tuka. Ukrainian troops remained on the second floor, but when the ceiling above them collapsed some of the soldiers were killed, Tuka said. Others were captured by insurgents or withdrew from the airport, he added.
The ministry of defence disputed January 22 that the battle for the airport had been lost. “Part of the buildings and part of the territory of the airport remain under the control of Ukrainian forces. Fighting is continuing,” the defence ministry said in a press release.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Yury Biryukov wrote on the evening of January 20 that thick fog had frustrated Ukraine's attempt to retake the airport, after losing control of it on January 16. Units moving in on the airport buildings across the runways got their position wrong and ran into a strong force of rebels, with ensuing casualties and eight were taken prisoner.
Other volunteers said that wounded Ukrainians had been finished off by 'Chechens' fighting on the rebel side.
Ukraine has repeatedly said that Russian units were fighting alongside the rebels, while Russia has refuted this. Western officials have not yet backed official Ukrainian statements that regular Russian army units are currently involved in fighting, but have instead spoken of a large concentration of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border.
Angered commentators also blamed the apparent failure of the operation to retake the airport on mistakes made by commanders of Ukraine's army, in particular chief of staff Viktor Muzhenko, who was reported to have taken personal charge of the operation. “He personally bears responsibility for all tactical operations around the airport starting January 16,” frontline military commentator Yury Butusov wrote on Facebook. According to Butusov, Muzhenko had previously removed a number of experienced commanders from their posts.
Muzhenko had previously attracted criticism for the actions of his associate and deputy of many years standing, former head of Ukraine's “anti-terrorist operation” Vyacheslav Narkin, whose brother is a Russian army general. Nazarkin was removed from this post and reportedly charged with gross neglect of duty in September.
"To the question, which is more dangerous for us, the external or the internal enemy, my answer is the internal", volunteer leader Tuka wrote on Facebook.
Progress in Berlin 'Normandy-format' talks
The apparent failure of Ukraine's attempt to regain control of the airport may now pave the way to a resumption of ceasefire talks.
Foreign ministers from Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany - the so-called 'Normandy-format' countries - met in Berlin on January 21 for talks on the conflict. Agreement was reached that the conflicting sides in Donbass would pull heavy weaponry back from the demarcation line, as it was agreed in September in the so-called Minsk Agreements, which was meant to put an end to fighting across the whole of East Ukraine's conflict-torn Donbass region.
Under the Minsk peace accords, all sides would withdraw heavy weaponry 15 kilometers back from the demarcation line.
The Russia-backed rebels have repeatedly claimed that the Minsk Agreements gave Donetsk Airport to them, a claim disputed by Ukraine's foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin on January 21.
"Today we have finally agreed that the demarcation line mentioned in the Minsk agreement is the line from where the withdrawal of heavy weapons needs to take place now," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told media late on January 21, as quoted by AP. "A lot depends on the question if that what we have agreed on will not only remain printed paper, but will also change the situation on the ground," he added.
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