KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — In the first Ukrainian military action against a pro-Russian uprising in the east, government forces said they clashed yesterday with about 30 armed gunmen at a small airport.
The clash came hours after Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, had announced an “anti-terrorist operation” against the armed, pro-Russian insurgents who had seized control of numerous buildings in at least nine cities in Ukraine’s restive east.
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. The insurgents are demanding broader autonomy and closer ties with Russia, and complicating the political landscape, many local security forces have switched to their side.
The clashes yesterday came at Kramatorsk airport, just south of the city of Slovyansk, which is 100 miles from the Russian border. The city has come under the increasing control of the gunmen who seized it last weekend.
The precise sequence of events in Kramatorsk was mired in confusion amid contradictory official claims.
Ukraine’s security services anti-terrorist unit chief, 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 at the airport heard rounds of gunfire at the time.
After the armed standoff, hundreds of local people surrounded the airport amid rumors that government troops were planning to launch a military operation on the city of Kramatorsk itself. Some in the crowd attempted to enter the military facility, prompting Ukrainian troops to fire bursts of warning shots.
There were conflicting reports of casualties. Yury Zhadobin, coordinator of a pro-Russian defense force, said two people were slightly injured and were taken to a hospital. Russia media, without sourcing, claimed anywhere from four to 11 casualties at the airport. Ukraine government said there were no casualties and added that Ukrainian forces took an unspecified number of militiamen prisoner.