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Friday, May 23, 2014

Deadliest Rebel Attack on Ukrainian Military Kills at Least 14

By Harriet Salem

May 22, 2014 | 1:35 pm
With less than three days to go until Ukraine’s presidential election on May 25, pro-Russia rebels operating in the country’s east waged a deadly hit-and-run attack on a military checkpoint. The assault occurred near Blahodatne, a village 36 miles southwest of Donetsk.

AP journalists at the scene reported seeing 11 dead soldiers, and eyewitnesses said at least 33 others were injured. The Ukrainian Health Ministry later revised the death toll from at least 14 to 16 — the Ukrainian military’s single largest loss of life since unrest in the region began.

Photographs purportedly from the scene of the assault that were published on the anti-Maidan website show two lifeless bodies in military fatigues lying in a field, as well as burnt-out military vehicles and a shot-up white transit van.

The attack is the second of its kind in nine days. On May 13, seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed after insurgents armed with RPGs and automatic guns fired at a convoy of military vehicles moving through the village of Oktyabrskoye, near Kramatorsk.

At present it is unclear who was behind today’s assault in Blahodatne.

A rebel commander who calls himself “Bes,” which means demon in Russian, told VICE News that his Horlivka-based unit was responsible for the attack.

Outside of the Horlivka police building, which was violently stormed by pro-Russia forces on April 14, a rebel unit commander nicknamed “Zubr,” meaning ox in Russian, confirmed to VICE News that a photo by the AP purporting to show weapons seized from the Ukrainian military by the rebels was taken inside the occupied station. The photo also appears to show a green van remarkably similar to PrivatBank vehicles that Interfax Ukraine reported had been hijacked by the rebels and used in attacks.

However, Pavel Gubarev, the self-declared “people’s governor” of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic who was recently freed from a stint in custody in Kiev, took to Facebook to deny that DPR forces were behind the attack. He instead blamed provocateurs, namely the nationalist Right Sector and a paramilitary group supposedly financed by PrivatBank oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky. He later posted a video on his Facebook page in which a rebel spokesman echoed his denial.

Russian media outlet Life News has claimed that the attack was an inside job and that the Ukrainian army, or hired mercenaries, killed Ukrainian troops for refusing to fight the rebels. The Ukrainian military recently detained two Life News journalists, who they allege possessed weapons, including grenade launchers.

“They are basically special agents who used journalism as a cover for their illegal terrorist activities,” Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s interim president, told VICE News.

Frightened locals, many of whom depend on Russian news media for information, reportedly said they believed Kiev had staged the attack. Eyewitnesses have reported that PrivatBank vans were used in the assault, and were waved through checkpoints by the soldiers before the assault.

The BBC reported that one Ukrainian officer said that separatists did not attack them.

Video footage circulating on social media shows a helicopter firing flares flying over the fields where the incident took place, as explosions boom in the backdrop. The footage has not been independently verified. The helicopter could have been part of a rescue mission. But pro-Russia groups have speculated that friendly fire might have killed the soldiers in a case of mistaken identity after reinforcements were called in during the rebel attack.

The Ukrainian government has claimed that it has evidence that Russia is behind the attack, though it is unclear what this consists of.

The confused reports about who undertook the attack are typical of the simmering Ukraine conflict, which has increasingly become an information war.

Whatever the case, conflicting accounts from different rebel groups in the region over who is responsible bolster the claim that pro-Russia separatist groups in the region are increasingly divided.

Outside of the rebel-held administration building in Horlivka, a rebel unit commander called Kamaz conceded to VICE News that there had been “minor disagreements” among the separatists, which he said was “normal for a people’s movement,” but he added that the rebel groups share a common goal.

If the attacks were by pro-Russia militiamen, they would certainly support the DPR's intention to derail voting in much of the east. But rebel movement generally appears to have floundered after it became apparent following a separatist referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk that a Russia military intervention is unlikely.

It may be impossible to hold the vote in rebel regions. Read more here.

Igor Strelkov, the commander of the DPR militia and reportedly a former Russian military intelligence colonel, released a bizarre video tirade over the weekend about the lack of recruits signing up to fight for the separatist cause.

“Tens of thousands just sit at home calmly watching television and drinking beer,” he said, complaining that men were sitting round waiting for Russia to get involved.

Meanwhile, the self-styled “people’s mayor” the separatist epicenter of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, has complained for weeks that the rebel “government” based in Donetsk, the region’s administrative capital, won’t talk to him.

The gold-toothed mayor told VICE News that “Slovyansk is the center of the Donetsk People’s Republic.” Speaking of the authorities in Donetsk, Ponomarev said that he could reach them by telephone, but added, “Who needs them anyway?”

Heavy shelling and gunfire exchanges have become an almost daily occurrence in the areas around Slovyansk, which the Ukrainian army has surrounded. Last night, mortars hit at least one residential property on the outskirts of the city.

Fighting has also been reported in other volatile pockets of the eastern region.

An exchange of gunfire between rebels and Ukrainian forces near Lisichansk, a town in the west of Luhansk Oblast, started in the early hours of this morning and continued for a number of hours. A bridge was blown up during the battle, but is unclear what sparked the outburst.

According to an election monitoring non-governmental organization, a district election commission in the town Lisichansk was yesterday taken over by armed rebels. Police reportedly assisted them in carrying out computers and other equipment from the building.

The seizure may have provoked this morning’s assault by the Ukrainian army. Lisichansk lies in a grey buffer zone where a military partition effectively divides the rebel held south of Luhansk Oblast from the Ukrainian controlled north.

The government in Kiev, which desperately needs a free and fair vote to proceed in as much of the east as possible in order to secure a legitimate mandate for the new president, cannot afford to lose more ground to rebels with so little time to spare.

On Tuesday at least eleven election commissions were seized by armed militia in a synchronized assault that stretched from the industrial port city Mariupol to Artemivsk, a town 28 miles southeast of Slovyansk.

Turchynov recently paid a visit to the frontline of a Kiev-backed anti-terrorism operation in the eastern Ukrainian city of Izyum. He vowed to push the counter-terror offensive forward.

“The special services are ready for the final phase of the anti-terrorist operation,” he told VICE News. “We will be able clear the terrorists out of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.”

But a security source who spoke with VICE News on condition of anonymity said that the government’s control over Luhansk Oblast is “patchy,” and that there are “multiple paramilitary and other criminal groups operating in the area.”

Addressing the likelihood of the presidential vote going ahead in the region, the security source offered that the situation “could change by May 25, but only for the worse.”

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

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