Ukraine hub turns into ghost town after airport battle

Ukraine hub turns into ghost town after airport battle
Firemen work on the damaged Druzhba Hockey Arena in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, burned by unknown armed men.

DONETSK, Ukraine - The bustling eastern Ukrainian hub of Donetsk resembled a ghost town Wednesday with shuttered stores and deserted streets after a devastating two-day firefight with separatists who had seized the airport.

The gleaming Sergei Prokofiev International Airport - rebuilt at a cost of $900 million (S$1.1 billion) for the Euro 2012 football championship - stood with its vast glass facade shattered after the army used fighter bombers and helicopters to attack more than 100 pro-Russian militants who had captured the building on Monday.

Ukrainian authorities said Tuesday they had regained control of the vast building and killed more than 40 rebels without suffering casualties in their most forceful military operation since the pro-Russian insurgency first erupted in the industrial region in early April.

But the airport itself remained closed and its administrators were unable to say when the region's most important connecting point might operate again.

"We will no longer let these terrorists kidnap people and kill them," president-elect Petro Poroshenko told Germany's Bild daily after his dominant victory in Sunday's presidential election.

"We will end this terror. A real war is being waged against our country," the billionaire chocolate factory owner said.

Nearly two months of violence have cost around 200 lives and threatened the ex-Soviet nation's very survival after the seizure by Russia of its strategic Crimea peninsula.

The separatists view the new pro-Western leaders in Kiev who toppled a Kremlin-backed president in February as dangerous nationalists and are seeking a closer alliance - if not all-out integration - with Russia.

But it remains unclear how much support the militants actually have among the locals. Poroshenko placed first with 36 per cent of the vote in the Donetsk region despite rebel attempts to disrupt the poll.

Many also appear resentful at the growing toll the insurgency was taking on their daily lives.

Dazed officials in the riverbank city of nearly one million people said 14 schools and two hospitals had been closed near the airport.

Roads leading to it and the city's main railway station, where the maimed body of a woman was discovered Monday, were sealed off as a precaution.

A huge truck with blown out tyres and a windshield riddled with bullets stood abandoned on the side of a road leading out of town - a reminder of the scale of battles that descended on a city that had previously avoided major violence.

Many offices in the city's modern centre stood empty after the local mayor warned residents to stay off the streets unless essential.

Shops and restaurants - even the local McDonald's - remained locked up and their windows boarded throughout much of Donetsk.

"We had eight patients come in with various injuries," said local hospital doctor Andriy Sagalevich "Five of the patients had shrapnel wounds and one had a bullet wound." But residual signs of discontent remained in clear evidence Wednesday as more than a thousand miners took to the streets waving separatists flags and chanting slogans that compared Poroshenko's team to fascists.

Nostalgic Soviet-era songs blared from a loudspeaker of a car that lad the peaceful march.

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