DONETSK, Ukraine – Dozens of dead insurgents lay piled in a van outside a morgue Tuesday, and a rebel said more were on the way. Bomb disposal experts disarmed a mortar round lodged in a corpse. A wrecked and blood-soaked truck at the Donetsk airport showed the grisly aftermath of battle.
The fight for eastern Ukraine seems to have taken a ferocious turn, as both sides step up their attacks after the rebellious regions mostly boycotted a presidential election that delivered a decisive winner.
Following a day and night of the heaviest and most sustained assault by Ukrainian government forces to date, the pro-Russia separatist movement finds itself facing an emboldened and resolute national leadership.
With Sunday’s election of billionaire Petro Poroshenko to the presidency, Kiev has received grudging and tentatively positive diplomatic overtures from Russia.
Leaders of the 28 EU countries, meeting Tuesday in Brussels, said they expect Russia to cooperate with Poroshenko.
In a statement, the EU heads of state and government said Moscow should “use its leverage on the armed separatists to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine.”
But with evidence that irregulars are continuing to pour into Ukraine from Russia, it remains unclear whether the Kremlin is encouraging fighters whose attack Monday on the Donetsk International Airport showed their increasing aggression.
What is certain is that the Ukrainian government’s anti-insurgent operation has been kicked into a higher gear, with the military unleashing fighter jets, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery.
Government opponents insist they have taken up arms to defend eastern Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population and have appealed to Moscow for assistance. Kiev condemns the insurgents as “terrorists” bent on tearing the country apart.
Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko said 40 people, including two civilians, were killed in fighting after government troops thwarted a rebel attempt to seize the airport, Ukraine’s second-largest.
After Poroshenko claimed victory in the election, hopes were raised of a push for unification in the deeply divided nation. He has vowed to negotiate a peaceful end to the insurgency.
But he also compared the separatists to lawless “Somali pirates” and promised he would stop them from sowing more chaos.
The billionaire candy magnate and politician is known for his even-handed and pragmatic rhetoric, and he has supported building strong ties with Europe but also stressed the importance of mending relations with Moscow.
President Barack Obama, who spoke with Poroshenko by phone Tuesday, plans to meet him while in Europe June 3-6, the White House said. Obama offered him the United States’ full support to unify Ukraine, it added.
Poroshenko, who has not yet been sworn in, pending official confirmation of the results, said his first step as president would be to visit the troubled east. He said he hoped Russia would support his efforts to bring stability and that he wanted to hold talks with Moscow.
But acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Ukraine has no intention of talking to Russia directly.