Blahodatne, AP—At least 11 Ukrainian troops were killed and about 30 others were wounded Thursday when pro-Russian insurgents attacked a military checkpoint, the deadliest raid in weeks of fighting in eastern Ukraine. The attack came three days before the country’s presidential vote.
AP journalists saw 11 bodies scattered around the checkpoint on the edge of the village of Blahodatne, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of the city of Donetsk.
Witnesses said that more than 30 Ukrainian troops were wounded when the insurgents attacked the checkpoint, and some of them were in grave condition.
Three charred Ukrainian armored infantry vehicles, their turrets blown away by powerful explosions, and several burned trucks stood at the site of the combat. A military helicopter landed on the site, carrying officials who inspected the area.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry confirmed the attack, but wouldn’t comment on casualties. There was no report of casualties on the insurgent side.
In the town of Horlivka, a rebel commander claimed responsibility for the raid and produced an array of weapons they said they had seized.
“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 several dozen items, including automatic and sniper rifles, rocket grenade launchers and bulletproof vests carefully laid out in the courtyard in the Horlivka city police headquarters occupied by the rebels.
“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.
Scores have been killed in fighting between pro-Russian insurgents, who have seized government buildings and engaged in clashes with government troops in eastern Ukraine.
Thursday’s carnage cast a shadow over Ukraine’s presidential vote on Sunday, which insurgents in the east have pledged to derail. The authorities in Kiev see the vote as a chance to defuse tensions and stabilize the country, although they admitted that it will be impossible to stage the vote in some areas in the east, where election officials and voters have faced intimidation and threats from the rebels.
Many in the east resent the government in Kiev, which came to power after the ouster of a pro-Russian president in February following mass of protests, seeing it as a bunch of nationalists bent on repressing Russian speakers. But many local residents have grown increasingly exasperated with the rebels, whom they blamed 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 the roof of her house torn by an explosion, which also shattered one of the walls. “Why they are hitting us?” she said, bursting into tears. “We are peaceful people!”
Patskan, who wasn’t hurt, said she was hiding under a kitchen table with her cat, Timofey, when the shelling came.
About a hundred Semenovka residents later vented their anger against the central government, demanding that the Ukrainian forces cease their offensive and withdraw from the region. Speakers at the rally also called for boycotting the presidential vote.
While fighting raged in Ukraine, Russia’s Defense Ministry said Thursday that its forces were leaving the regions near Ukraine as part of a massive military pullout ordered by President Vladimir Putin.
It said that 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, the ministry added.
NATO, which estimates that Russia has 40,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, repeated Tuesday that it hadn’t yet seen any signs of a Russian withdrawal.
Putin scoffed at NATO’s skepticism, saying Wednesday that the pullout involving large numbers of troops would take time and “those who aren’t seeing it should look better.” He said the pullout will be clearly visible in satellite images.
The announcement went further than an earlier step by the Russian leader two weeks ago, when he said the troops retreated from the border to shooting ranges.
Putin’s pullout order and his remarks welcoming Ukraine’s presidential election this 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 after independence referendums dismissed as a sham by Ukraine and the West.
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 US and EU have warned that more crippling sanctions against entire sectors of the Russian economy would follow if Russia tries to grab more land 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 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.
As clashes continued in the east, the Kremlin angrily protested the detention of journalists working for Russian media outlets in Ukraine. Graham Phillips, a British national 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 faced accusations of aiding armed insurgents—a claim that Putin has dismissed as “rubbish and nonsense.”