Ukraine’s counterterrorism operation continued and even gained traction in the country’s gritty industrial east on Saturday, as its security forces destroyed pro-Russian rebel checkpoints and pushed their lines closer toward the fortified centers of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, where armed insurgents remain holed up inside key government buildings.
The Interior Ministry said and Kyiv Post confirmed that the SBU building previously seized by the rebels had been recaptured, as well as the TV tower during the early morning operation. Ukrainian troops from the country’s army, Interior and Defense ministries and Security Service (SBU) also managed to fortify the perimeter surrounding the airfield in Kramatorsk, the site of much upheaval in past weeks, and detain at least three men believed to be supporting the rebels.
Russian state media reported that 10 insurgents were killed and 15 more injured during the dawn assault. The Kyiv Post could not independently confirm the details, but saw no dead bodies or wounded people in the city’s center Saturday morning. Eyewitnesses did tell the Kyiv Post, however, that several people were carried off to medics and treated for wounds sustained during the Ukrainian operation, but that they saw no corpses.
It was just after noon when Ukrainian forces carried out an assault on a rebel checkout at a northern highway between Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, opening fire on water and gas trucks used as blockades by the rebel forces, who in turn burned a wall of tires in an attempt to stave off the assault, according to eyewitnesses at the scene.
Two officers from the Security Service of Ukraine's elite Alpha unit march a pro-Russian separatist to a Ukrainian forces-controlled checkpoint five kilometers north of the embattled city of Sloviansk on May 3. (Christopher J. Miller)
Misha, a twenty-something pro-Russian checkpoint guard who did not give his last name for fear of being targeted by “fascist” Kyiv forces, said the two gas trucks filled with flammable gas exploded when fired upon, peeling back the metal tanks like sardine cans. The water trucks were riddled with bullet holes and spent casings littered the soot-stained street.
Around one o’clock, about two dozen men were working to rebuilding the barricades destroyed by the Ukrainian forces, piling tires five-high and raising a Donetsk Republic flag as a group of young children gleefully gathered the spent cartridges to keep as souvenirs.
A little more than a kilometer away, in the city’s center, flames and smoke rose from two trolley buses, a van and a sedan that were set alight by pro-Kremlin rebel forces to prevent the Ukrainian operatives from advancing toward their headquarters – Kramatorsk’s city administration building.
More than an hour after the counterterrorism assault on the city had ended, a group of seven heavily armed men in full combat gear rested in the shade of a tree some 20 meters from the burned out bus remains. Dozens of locals crowded around them to congratulate them on their “victory over the fascist forces,” as one man in the crowd put it. With Kalashnikovs laid across their laps and rocket-propelled grenade launchers strung over their shoulders, they soaked up the attention.
Kremlin-backed insurgents rest in the grass in central Kramatorsk meters away from two burning trolley buses set alight in order to keep Ukrainian forces from purging the group from its headquarters in the city's administration building. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)
Three blocks away, at the city administration buildings, armed insurgents removed their masks momentarily while a chubby priest in a rose-colored robe prayed over them, asking God to keep them safe in war, before showering them and the group that had crowded around with holy water.
Back on the highway from Kramatorsk to Sloviansk, the Ukrainian armed forces remained frosty at the string of checkpoints set up to keep pro-Russian rebels from traveling outside the city limits. One masked officer nervously fingered his pistol as two others with Kalashnikovs scrutinized the documents of a driver looking to pass through the point.
After the man began arguing with the three officers, the man with the pistol cocked the weapon and pushed a Kyiv Post report back into his car to get him out of the line of fire.
Meanwhile, members of the Security Service of Ukraine’s elite Alpha group captured three pro-Russian men their captain told the Kyiv Post had been “helping” the rebels embedded in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. Six Alpha officers marched them at gunpoint to a Ukraine-controlled checkpoint five kilometers north of Sloviansk, put them on their knees and questioned them before escorting them into a nearby building.
As Dusk fell over the steppe here in the country’s embattled east, the tension seemed to subside. Four young members of the country’s army standing guard at the checkpoint just north of Sloviansk joked with a Kyiv Post reporter.
“I know English,” said one, who did not give his name because he was not authorized to do so. “Windows XP and apple juice.” With that, his comrades let out bellowing laughs.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media