Graham Stack in Antratsit, Ukraine -
In a major blow to the credibility of Ukraine's faltering "anti-terrorist operation" against pro-Russian separatists in East Ukraine, the leader of the separatist rebels in Lugansk, Valery Bolotov, has returned to Ukraine from Russia, according to both Ukraine's border guards and the separatists. Bolotov, a mysterious former paratrooper who is the self-proclaimed “people's governor” of the Lugansk region, declared the independence of the “Lugansk People's Republic” on May 12 but the day after was wounded in a shooting incident and went to Russia.
According to a press release of Ukraine's border guards, “as the result of bitter fighting at the border crossing point Dovzhanskii, armed rebel fighters were able to free (…) Bolotov”. Ukrainian border guards say they detained Bolotov at 05.45 informing law enforcement organs including representatives conducting the anti-terrorist operation, and waited for two hours for assistance from armed forces, “but no one came.” According to the border guards, around 100 fighters freed Bolotov from the border guards. There is no information about casualties.
A bne reporter in Antratsit saw at 06.15 three Kamaz trucks drive through the town from the direction of the Russian border, with what appeared to be uniformed soldiers inside. Antratsit is roughly a 40-minute drive from the Dovzhanskii border crossing. The lead truck in the convoy flew the yellow, blue, red tricolour that is the flag of the Don Cossacks, an organisation strong in the south of Russia and enjoying official status. Machine guns were mounted through the cabin roofs of the trucks. Seen from a roadside hotel room, the men in trucks appeared to be uniformed with summer caps similar to those used by Russian forces. It was not possible to see the registration numbers of the trucks. Townsfolk reported a total of 6 trucks had passed, carrying around 200 men. The trucks travelled westwards through Antratsit, which is held by similarly uniformed “Cossack” forces, further into Ukraine, in the direction of the ebel stronghold of Slavyansk.
It is not clear whether Bolotov was with the convoy. Separatists' spokesman Vassily Nikitin confirmed that Bolotov had returned and was in good health, but said he had no information about the convoy of Kamaz trucks. He confirmed the border guards' story that rebel fighters had freed Bolotov after border guards had detained him.
Slavyansk (sometimes spelt Sloviansk), the heart of fighting between Ukraine's anti-terrorist operation and pro-Russian separatist rebels in the region, is only 100 miles along the road to the west of Antratsit, giving Antratsit strategic significance in securing a support corridor from Russia.
Already on May 16 there were rumours flying around that rebels were preparing a corridor. Donetsk journalist Serhiy Garmash tweeted that, “the separatists are planning on seizing the border crossing and opening the corridor 'Antratsit-Debaltsevo-Slavyansk.”
Bolotov and rebel fighters' apparent freedom to cross the Ukraine-Russian border at will suggests collaboration between Ukrainian border guards, the separatists rebels and Russian state structures.
Bolotov had left Lugansk for Russia on May 17, one day after the “Lugansk People's Republic” declared independence. Ukraine border guards said they let him pass, since he was not on any list of individuals with travel ban. On the same day as leaving for Russia, Bolotov was wounded in a shooting incident, which the separatists blamed on Kyiv. It is unclear how the claimed wounding and his departure for Russia are connected. The fact that border guards had simply let Bolotov pass through on his way to Russia prompted national outcry, and the border guards said that they would not allow him to pass back into Ukraine. But pass he did.
The report of the firefight at the border early May 17 may be fictive, given there was no obvious sign of damage to the truck convoy. “There are no signs of there having been any 'bitter fighting' at Dovzhanskii border crossing,” according to Dmitry Tymchuk of Information Resistance, pro-Ukrainaian group of bloggers.
Border guards further north, at the Izvarino border crossing, similarly claimed May 9 that they had been overwhelmed by 40 fighters out of Ukraine after a firefight. The rebels then set fire to the border station. But locals eyewitnesses in Izvarino told bne May 10 that the border guards had simply retreated without a shot fired, allowing the rebels to set fire to the premises. After the rebels had left, the border guards fired rounds in the air to simulate resistance. There were no reported casualties.
bne sources further south in Mariopol likewise reported May 10 that, “the rebels have a corridor at the border crossing of Novoazovsk,”
Bolotov's apparent ability to cross the Russian border with ease is likely to further undermine the credibility of Kyiv's start-stop anti-terror campaign in the east of the country against the separatists. “This has gone beyond treason or sabotage of the [anti-terror campaign operation], this is simply turning it into an art-house movie,” Timchuk tweeted.
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