11 Ukrainian troops dead, 30 wounded by rebels
By Ivan Sekretarev And Peter Leonard, The Associated Press
BLAHODATNE, Ukraine - Three days before Ukraine holds a presidential vote, pro-Russia insurgents attacked a military checkpoint Thursday in eastern Ukraine, killing at least 11 troops and wounding 30 others in the deadliest raid yet in weeks of fighting.
AP journalists saw 11 bodies scattered around a checkpoint near the village of Blahodatne, 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of the major city of Donetsk. Witnesses said more than 30 Ukrainian troops were wounded when the insurgents attacked and that some of them were in grave condition.
Three charred Ukrainian armoured infantry vehicles, their turrets blown away, and several burned trucks were seen at the site, which is in the Donetsk region, one of two in eastern Ukraine that have declared independence from the interim government in Kyiv. A military helicopter landed, carrying officials who inspected the area.
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry confirmed the attack but wouldn't comment on casualties. There was no report of casualties on the insurgent side.
Residents said attackers used an armoured bank truck, which the unsuspecting Ukrainian soldiers waved through, and then mowed them down at point-blank range. Their account couldn't be independently confirmed.
In the town of Horlivka, a rebel commander claimed responsibility for the raid and showed an array of seized Ukrainian weapons.
"We destroyed a checkpoint of the fascist Ukrainian army deployed on the land the Donetsk Republic," said the commander, who wore a balaclava and identified himself by his nom de guerre, "Bes," Russian for "demon."
"The weapons you see here have been taken from the dead, they are trophies," he said, showing automatic and sniper rifles, rocket grenade launchers and bulletproof vests in the courtyard of the occupied Horlivka city police headquarters.
"People living in western Ukraine: Think about where you are sending your brothers, fathers and sons, and why you need any of this," the commander said.
Thursday's carnage cast a shadow over Ukraine's presidential vote on Sunday, which separatists in the east have pledged to derail. The authorities in Kyiv see the vote as a chance to defuse tensions and stabilize the country. Even so, they have admitted it will be impossible to stage the vote in some eastern areas where election officials and voters have faced intimidation and sometimes death threats from the rebels.
Many in the east resent the government in Kyiv, which came to power after a pro-Russian president fled in February following months of protests, seeing it as nationalists bent on repressing Russian-speakers.
But many locals in the east also have grown increasingly exasperated with the rebels, whom they blame for putting civilians in the crossfire.
In the village of Semenovka on the outskirts of Slovyansk, artillery shelling that appeared to come from government positions badly damaged several houses Thursday.
Zinaida Patskan, 80, had her roof torn away by an explosion that also shattered a wall. Patskan said she was hiding under a kitchen table with her cat, Timofey, when the shelling came.
"Why they are hitting us?" she said, bursting into tears. "We are peaceful people!"
About a hundred Semenovka residents later vented their anger against the central government, demanding that the Ukrainian forces cease their offensive against the separatists and withdraw from the region. Speakers at the rally also called for boycotting the presidential vote.
While fighting raged in Ukraine, Russia's Defence Ministry said Thursday its forces were leaving the regions near Ukraine as part of a massive military pullout ordered by President Vladimir Putin. It said four trainloads of weapons and 15 Il-76 heavy-lift transport planes left the Belgorod, Bryansk and Rostov regions on Wednesday. The troops are to reach their permanent bases before June 1.
NATO had estimated that Russia has 40,000 troops along the border with Ukraine. Its secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said Thursday that some of the Russian forces near Ukraine may be preparing to depart.
"We have seen limited Russian troop activity in the vicinity of the border with Ukraine which may suggest that may suggest that some of these forces are preparing to withdraw," he told reporters in Montenegro.
Putin's pullout order and his remarks welcoming Ukraine's presidential election Sunday reflected an attempt to ease tensions with the West over Ukraine and avoid a new round of Western sanctions. He has ignored the plea of some of the rebels in eastern Ukraine to join Russia.
The United States and the European Union imposed travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin's entourage after Russia annexed Crimea in March. The U.S. and EU have warned that more crippling sanctions against entire sectors of the Russian economy could follow if Russia tries to grab more land from Ukraine or attempts to derail Ukraine's election.
Moscow has supported a peace plan brokered by Switzerland and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which envisages a broad amnesty and the launch of a national dialogue that focuses on the decentralization of Ukraine's government and upholding the status of the Russian language.
Russia also has pushed for guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO and has advocated constitutional reforms that would give broader powers to the regions, which would maintain Moscow's clout in the Russian-speaking eastern regions that form the nation's industrial heartland.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, angrily protested the detention of journalists working for Russian media outlets in Ukraine. Graham Phillips, a Briton working for state-controlled English language television station RT, was detained earlier this week by Ukrainian forces.
Two correspondents with Moscow-based Life News television, who were also detained, have remained in Ukrainian custody and face accusations of aiding armed insurgents — a claim Putin has dismissed as "rubbish and nonsense."
Leonard reported from Horlivka, Ukraine. Dmitry Kozlov in Blahodatne, Ukraine, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kyiv, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Predrag Milic in Podgorica, Montenegro, and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.