May 26, 2014 6:42 pm

Kiev in airport offensive as Moscow says ready to talk to president-elect

Ukraine’s government launched air strikes and deployed paratroops against pro-Russian militants who seized the city of Donetsk’s international airport as Moscow said it was willing to hold talks with Ukraine’s newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko.

The offensive on Monday, which brought fighting to within 10km of the centre of the biggest city in Ukraine’s industrial east, came just hours after Mr Poroshenko’s emergence as the clear winner of Sunday’s election. It also presented an immediate test of Russia’s willingness to engage with Kiev after an election that was hailed in Europe and the US as a chance to resolve the Ukraine crisis.

Earlier on Monday, the Russian government issued a cautious endorsement of Sunday’s vote, in which Mr Poroshenko won 54 per cent with more than 76 per cent of the ballots counted. But it warned him against resuming military operations, which Moscow’s foreign ministry said would be a “colossal mistake”.

Both foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Ivanov, head of the presidential administration, said Russia would “respect the will of the Ukrainian people”. Mr Lavrov said Moscow was ready for dialogue with Mr Poroshenko.

Mr Poroshenko became the first Ukrainian to win a presidential election outright in a single round since the country’s first pro-independence president, Leonid Kravchuk, in 1991. The latest election was seen as crucial in starting to restore the legitimacy of Kiev’s leadership after the violent overthrow of ex-president Viktor Yanukovich in February.

The billionaire politician, nicknamed the “Chocolate King” for his confectionery business, promised to do everything he could to win the confidence of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the country’s east, but said he would “not negotiate with terrorists”.

Mr Poroshenko described re-engagement with Russia as his priority but declared that Ukraine and the international community would never recognise Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

He said a meeting with Moscow was likely to take place in the first half of June, stressing “that would be not just to shake hands”. “Mr Putin and I know each other quite well. The last argument from Russia that Ukraine does not have a legitimate president has disappeared,” he added.

Dmitry Kozak, Russian deputy prime minister, said the two governments would hold talks on normalising rail links between Ukraine and Crimea. “The political process in Ukraine will probably change now,” Mr Kozak was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.

Mr Lavrov acknowledged Mr Poroshenko’s pledge to make the violence-ridden regions in eastern Ukraine the destination of his first trip in office, as Moscow has accused Kiev of neglecting the interests of the Russian-speaking population in those parts of the country.

By late afternoon, more rebels had descended on the airport to aid the fighters. Inside the occupied Donetsk city administration building, separatist leaders raced up and down the stairwell, while their followers speculated on the Ukrainian fighter jet flying audibly overhead.

After Ukraine’s military pushed most of the rebels outside the immediate territory of Donetsk airport into a suburban area not far from the railway station, fighting continued well into the evening, with explosions heard in the city centre. Some casualties were reported, and Donetsk’s elected mayor issued a statement advising residents to stay off the streets.

Russian media reported that a truck carrying rebels had been hit in a rocket attack inside the city, with up to 35 people killed, but the number of deaths could not be confirmed.

Denis Pushilin, speaker of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic, called on Russian president Vladimir Putin to intervene in the conflict and provide the separatists with military aid.

But Moscow appears reluctant to become more deeply involved. “While Mr Putin may sympathise with the sentiment in the east and uses the militants as a pressure instrument against the authorities in Kiev, civil war in Ukraine is not in his interest,” said Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre think-tank.

John Kerry, US secretary of state, said the election had sent a “clear message” that “the Ukrainian people want to live in a united, democratic and peaceful Ukraine anchored in European institutions”.

Mr Kerry criticised “outright armed intimidation by separatist groups” that prevented people in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk from voting but did not directly blame Russia for problems at polling stations. He added that the US “condemns and rejects Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, and remains committed to working with Ukraine and other partners to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict”.

Additional reporting by Geoff Dyer in Washington

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