A pro-Russian militant at the airport in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Monday.
DONETSK, Ukraine — A battle broke out on Monday at the airport in restive Donetsk when pro-Russian separatists stormed the terminal and demanded the exit of Ukrainian troops, presenting the first immediate challenge for Ukraine's president-elect, Petro Poroshenko, the day after his victory at the polls.
The fighting came as both Poroshenko and Russia's foreign minister said they were open to talks, but with Poroshenko vowing to continue operations against the separatists in his country's east and Russia warning that the military action must stop.
The standoff at the airport began at 3 a.m. local time on Monday when separatists stormed the terminal, saying they wanted Ukrainian troops to leave both the airport and the region. Three buses carrying more separatists arrived at 10 a.m. to reinforce the first group.
By 2 p.m., bursts of gunfire and explosions could be heard for at least 30 minutes. At least three Ukrainian helicopters were flying overhead, along with two fighter jets that were releasing anti-missile flares. One helicopter fired at and destroyed a rebel anti-aircraft gun, according to Vladislav Seleznev, a Ukraine military spokesperson.
Seleznev said the military had launched an airstrike against the separatists after they rejected an ultimatum, the Associated Press reported.
Black smoke was rising from an area near the airstrip, but it wasn't clear what caused it.
Around 3 p.m., Ukrainian forces went on the offensive. Bursts of gunfire punctuated by mortar and RPG blasts echoed through the area. Government forces pushed the militia south into a residential area less than a quarter mile from the city's central train station.
the guys on the roof of Donetsk airport, pretty amazing AFP photo pic.twitter.com/Fy6sihwGR6
— Anna Malpas (@malpasanna) May 26, 2014
Rebels and Ukrainian troops exchanged gunfire from their positions behind trees and bus stops.
At least one rebel was injured and carried to a car and driven away.
The clash in Donetsk developed mere hours after Poroshenko claimed victory as Ukraine's president, becoming the first elected leader of the nation since Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February. Poroshenko, a billionaire oligarch who visibly supported the Euromaidan uprising that led to Yanukovych's removal, won well over 50 percent of the vote; former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko placed a distant second.
In his first post-election press conference, Poroshenko vowed both to intensify military efforts against armed separatists in the east and to hold peace talks with Russia as well, according to the Kyiv Post news site.
“I am not going to hold any dialogues with the criminals. You don’t talk to terrorists,” he said. “The anti-terrorist operation will not and cannot last for months, it will last just for hours.”
His election brought conciliatory words from Moscow as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "We are ready for dialogue with Kiev's representatives, with Petro Poroshenko."