DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) – Ukrainian forces on Thursday ceded a long-disputed airport to Russian-backed rebels as an upsurge in clashes killed nearly 50 people and punctured Europe’s latest push for peace in the nine-month war.
The deadliest day of fighting since the signing of an increasingly irrelevant September truce also saw Moscow and Kiev trade bitter blame for a trolleybus shelling in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk that killed 13 mostly elderly passengers.
Moscow called the incident a “crime against humanity” orchestrated by Kiev’s pro-Western government, whose rise to power 11 months ago infuriated the Kremlin and prompted separatists to launch a revolt across the Russian-speaking industrial east.
Kiev for its part blamed the bus attack on “Russian terrorists” while monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe who raced to the site said all they could say for certain was that “the weapon used was most likely either a mortar or an artillery piece.”
The UN Security Council strongly condemned the “reprehensible” attack, calling for an objective investigation and saying those responsible should be brought to justice.
Meanwhile, stunned residents in the eastern city gathered around the shredded remains of the bus and inspected with horror several bloodied bodies that remained sprawled in their seats hours after the early morning attack.
Also on Thursday, in a major psychological blow to Kiev, a small unit of Ukrainian paratroopers abandoned its 242-day defence of Donetsk’s once-gleaming but now ruined international airport.
The hub – long stripped of its strategic importance by heavy shelling – had become the symbolic prize of the conflict and had seen some of the heaviest fighting.
Rebels captured about 20 soldiers in the last hours of battle on Thursday and paraded them around in front of jeering locals who pelted the handcuffed men with snowballs and glass.
“They have to be punished, like Saddam Hussein. They are killers. They killed our children,” a pensioner who identified herself only as Zina told AFP.
Kiev and rebel authorities said attacks across the separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk on Thursday killed 10 soldiers and some 35 civilians in addition to those who died in the bus attack.