JUDY WOODRUFF: Next to another difficult spot, Ukraine, where tensions are growing again along the border with Russia.In the last 24 hours, the two countries traded new accusations amid Ukraine’s battle to reassert control over regions near that border.
Fighting flared in Eastern Ukraine today, as government forces pressed the offensive against pro-Russian rebels. The rebels have lost half the territory they once controlled, and they have been pushed back into the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. The military recaptured several more villages today.
In Luhansk, broken glass and debris littered a damaged schoolhouse, and nearby apartments showed floors of shattered windows.
WOMAN (through interpreter): They have been shooting from all the sides. I have small children, so we put them into a bathtub and laid down on the floor, listening to shattered windows falling and people around screaming.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as Ukrainian forces advance, tensions with Russia have erupted anew. Kiev blamed the Russians today for shooting down a Ukrainian military transport plane. No one aboard was injured. On Sunday, a cross-border shelling attack reportedly killed a man on the Russian side of the border. Moscow accused Ukrainian forces, but a Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman pointed at the rebels.
ANDRIY LYSENKO, Spokesman, Ukraine National and Security Council (through interpreter): The information that the shelling was done by Ukrainian servicemen is a complete lie. We have many examples of terrorists carrying out provocation shootings, including into Russian territory, and then accusing Ukrainian forces of it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko went further, charging that Russian officers are fighting alongside the rebels. He claimed the Russians and their allies are feeling the heat.
PRESIDENT PETRO POROSHENKO, Ukraine (through interpreter): All incidents on the state border, all, without any exceptions, are caused by us having them by the throat. We now time after time see their columns, intercept their columns, use artillery, aviation to destroy those columns.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In turn, Russia formally asked that outside European monitors visit several border towns affected by the fighting.
For more on Ukraine, we turn to New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise, who is in Donetsk. I spoke to her a short while ago via Skype.
Sabrina, thank you for talking with us.
First of all, tell us about the Ukrainian military aircraft that went down.
SABRINA TAVERNISE, The New York Times: So it was kind of middle of the afternoon.
There’s a big dispute about it. Ukraine is accusing basically a very sophisticated anti-aircraft missile of shooting it down from Russian territory. Russia hasn’t responded to that claim, but a number of military analysts are saying that that’s pretty unlikely, that the most likely scenario is that rebels in this Eastern Ukrainian area shot the plane down.
It’s close to the border, sort of in a field. It’s unclear how many people were aboard. It was a cargo plane, but a spokesperson — a spokeswoman, actually, for the rebel government in Luhansk told me this afternoon that they have actually taken five hostages.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But that’s been impossible to verify, right?
SABRINA TAVERNISE: Yes.
The Ukrainians haven’t said anything yet about whether there were hostages or not, but it seems likely, as there aren’t — there weren’t — there wasn’t a high body count at the plane. I had a colleague who actually was at the plane and didn’t see — saw one body, but that was it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Sabrina, you were also in city of Luhansk today, several hours away. What did you see there?
SABRINA TAVERNISE: So, that is very interesting.
It’s — because the — it’s the scene of a very intense battle between the Ukrainian government and the rebel forces, more intense than the one in Donetsk, which is the city that everyone is focused on because it’s so much bigger. But Luhansk is sort of a poorer, kind of grittier version of Donetsk.
The Ukrainians have been shelling and have been hitting rebel positions in a lot of the areas around the edges of the city. The Ukrainians say that they have made some serious advances and taken territory. But I spent a good 10 hours today going around the edges of the city and some of the neighborhoods they said they controlled, and we didn’t see any evidence of Ukrainian soldiers or tanks or presence.
We did see many, many — you know, a lot of damage from shelling and a lot of people very angry at the Ukrainian military for what they say is imprecise weapons and civilian casualties.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So is it possible to describe the extent of the territory that the rebels are holding on to?
SABRINA TAVERNISE: You know, it is still substantial.
You know, Luhansk, Donetsk and sort of a large suburb of Donetsk called Marinka is nearly two million people, and then a large swathe of territory that takes up a chunk of the Russian border in the southeast of Ukraine. So, you know, the Ukrainian military has said that they have halved the territory that the rebels control. And that might be a little bit of an overstatement, but they have certainly taken some substantial — some substantial ground.
But they still have a very serious fight ahead. And, you know, without the ground troops really that they would need to kind of come in and take control in a more precise fashion, they rely — it’s looking, appearing like, on artillery and shelling that is pretty imprecise and seems to be inflicting some civilian damage.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about claims from the Ukrainians that there are Russians who are mixed in with these rebels doing the fighting with them?
SABRINA TAVERNISE: Well, it’s something that we have been following for a long time.
It’s impossible to say whether they’re actually commissioned Russian military officers. So, it’s not a situation like that, it doesn’t seem, but there are certainly many Russian passport holders who are among the fighters. How many is unclear, but quite — quite a number.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Sabrina Tavernise reporting for us from Donetsk, thank you very much.
SABRINA TAVERNISE: You’re welcome.