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As Ukraine ratchets up offensive on separatists, Russia warns against aggressive military action

May 27, 2014 at 6:18 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The casualty count among separatists rose in Eastern Ukraine today, as government forces continued to step up their offensive following the country’s presidential elections.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports from Ukraine.

MARGARET WARNER: Smoke billowed over the Eastern Ukraine airport at Donetsk and the main road leading into it, as Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels battled for a second day around it.

But government forces were back in control of the airport itself after calling in airstrikes and paratroopers yesterday to rout the separatists who’d seized it. The leader of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic said today more than 50 died in fighting region-wide, both rebel fighters and civilians.

The Donetsk mayor said 40 people were killed, only two of them civilians. Dozens of bodies piled up at local morgues, and townspeople braced for even more killing.

MAN (through interpreter): All the separatists who still remain in the city of Donetsk await the same fate. Unless they lay down their arms, they all will be destroyed, all of them. If they lay down their arms those, whose hands are not covered in blood would be spared. All the others will be destroyed.

MARGARET WARNER: In the city itself, unidentified men stormed and burned the main ice hockey rink in Donetsk. The site was supposed to host world championships next year. And in another contested region, Luhansk, Ukrainian border guards said they seized vehicles and weapons from gunmen who tried to bring in munitions from Russia overnight.

The Ukrainian offensive intensified on the heels of billionaire Petro Poroshenko’s claiming victory in Sunday’s presidential election. Russian President Vladimir Putin called today for Ukraine to end its offensive against the pro-Russia separatists.

And Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Ukraine and Poroshenko to reconsider their strategy.

SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia (through translator): If they are counting on suppressing resistance in the southeast, before Poroshenko’s expected inauguration and enabling him to go there as a victor, I don’t think this will create good conditions for a warm welcome in the Donetsk region. The military action has to be stopped immediately.

MARGARET WARNER: Still, in Kiev, Ukraine’s first deputy prime minister insisted the operation in the east will continue until, in his words, not a single terrorist remains.

A member of Ukraine’s national security staff here in Kiev warned me today that, as bloody as the current counteroffensive is, it could get become even more so once the new president takes office. He said Poroshenko could escalate the campaign from an anti-terrorist operation, which restricts the army’s combat role, into one that removes those limits. A U.S. official said Washington’s advice to Kiev right now amounts to, don’t be seen as the side shedding blood, but as the side restoring order.

MARGARET WARNER: We caught up with the just-elected mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxing champion, after he toured city hall, badly damaged in last winter’s Maidan uprising. We asked if he supports the more aggressive anti-separatist campaign in the east.

His answer echoed what president-elect Poroshenko said yesterday.

MAYOR VITALI KLITSCHKO, Kiev: We have to do everything to find a way to discussion, to find the way don’t use the weapon. It’s main point for Ukraine to bring peace back to the country.

MARGARET WARNER: If the separatist unrest were to continue in the east, how does that affect what you are trying to do here?

VITALI KLITSCHKO (through interpreter): We have to show that we are going towards normalization, towards normal life, a mirror reflection in both places. No barricades here, no barricades in the east. Ukraine has huge potential. How to develop this potential, the first step is to return peace to Ukraine, and have business return.

MARGARET WARNER: Returning peace will be a daunting task. Even some Russian speakers from the east, like this Luhansk woman we spoke with in Kiev, seemed conflicted. Hairdresser Natalya Zabet said she didn’t agree with separatists who are trying to split Ukraine, but she understood why some easterners voted three weeks ago to declare their own republic.

NATALYA ZABET (through interpreter): We didn’t have any other ways to present ourselves. We never could express our opinions in a democratic way. We from the east have never counted here in the West.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama today expressed support for Ukraine’s efforts to quell the eastern uprising. It came, the White House said, in a congratulatory phone call to president-elect Poroshenko. They plan to meet when Mr. Obama travels to Europe next week.

GWEN IFILL: You can see all of Margaret’s reporting from Ukraine on our World page.