KRAMATORSK, Ukraine – In the first Ukrainian military action against a pro-Russian uprising in the east, government forces repelled an attack Tuesday by about 30 gunmen at an airport, beginning what the president called an “anti-terrorist operation” to try to restore authority over the restive region.
The central government has so far been unable to rein in the insurgents, who it says are being stirred up by paid operatives from Russia and have seized numerous government facilities in at least nine eastern cities to press their demands for broader autonomy and closer ties with Russia. Complicating the political landscape, many local security forces have switched to their side.
The clashes Tuesday came at Kramatorsk airport, just south of the city of Slovyansk, which has come under the increasing control of the pro-Russian gunmen who seized it last weekend.
The precise sequence of events was mired in confusion amid contradictory official claims.
The commander of the Ukrainian operation, Gen. Vasyl Krutov, speaking outside Kramatorsk airport, said his men managed to thwart an attack by fighters in green military uniforms without insignia who tried to storm the facility in the late afternoon. An Associated Press reporter and camera crew heard rounds of gunfire at the time.
After the armed standoff, hundreds of local people surrounded the airport in response to rumors that government troops were planning to launch a military operation on the city of Kramatorsk itself.
In an attempt to defuse the situation, Gen. Krutov came out to speak to the angry protesters but was attacked by them. After a tussle in which his hat was knocked to the ground, he managed to take refuge in the airport.
While Krutov spoke of repelling an attack, the new government in Kiev declared that its forces had recaptured the airport from militiamen.
“I just got a call from the Donetsk region: Ukrainian special forces have liberated the airport in the city of Kramatorsk from terrorists,” acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told parliament.
“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.”
Hours earlier, Turchynov had announced the start of what he called “an anti-terrorist operation” against the pro-Russian insurgents.
He gave few details.
In Washington, the Obama administration gave its tacit support to the Ukrainian military action.
While the use of force “is not a preferred option,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “the Ukrainian government has a responsibility to provide law and order.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement denouncing the Ukrainian military operation, saying it was “criminal to fight with your own people as they speak out for their legal rights.” The ministry called on Russia’s “international partners” to condemn the new Ukrainian government’s actions.
What was clear is that the area bordering Russia is getting increasingly armed and unstable. Russia has tens of thousands of troops stationed along its border with Ukraine, raising fears that Moscow might use the instability in the predominantly Russian-speaking east as a pretext for an invasion.