ABOVE: At least two people were killed in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk when shells hit a market and residential area.
DONETSK, Ukraine – After days of intense fighting, Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine claimed Monday they had seized control of Donetsk airport once again. The Ukrainian military denied this but acknowledged that the fighting for the rubble-strewn trophy had been fierce.
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Three Ukrainian servicemen were killed and 66 wounded in the previous 24 hours, military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kyiv, but he would not say how many of those casualties occurred at the airport.
Donetsk airport, reduced to rubble in the fighting since May, is of limited strategic importance in the short term but has great symbolic value. In the longer term, the government fears the separatists could use the airport, located north of the main rebel-held city, to expand their control over eastern Ukraine and create an air supply route with Russia.
The separatists increased the stakes last week by successfully taking over large sections of the airport. The Ukrainians then unleashed a counter-offensive.
“All attempts of the Ukrainian army to take the airport and to get revenge for the defeat of the last year… have failed,” rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko told reporters Monday in Donetsk. He accused Ukraine of using rocket and artillery fire with an intensity that rebel forces had “never experienced before.”
Lysenko, however, said the weekend fighting had returned control over the airport to the military.
It was impossible independently to determine whose forces were in control.
The city of Donetsk was shaken by heavy artillery fire over the weekend as the airport battle raged. On Monday, a shell hit the city’s Central Clinical Hospital No. 3, blowing out windows but causing no deaths. All the patients were evacuated to other hospitals. Sporadic explosions were also heard Monday from the direction of the airport.
Yuriy Biryukov, an adviser to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, wrote on his Facebook account Monday that wounded soldiers had been evacuated from the air terminal overnight but did not say how many troops remained.
“We will not abandon our own, nobody has forgotten them,” he wrote. “Everything will be (ours) but just not right away. We are learning.”
In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers ruled out any easing of the sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine. Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said Monday after the fighting around Donetsk airport intensified “this is no time to talk about the easing of sanctions.”
Russia has shown “no political will, no movement on the ground, so no reason to change policy,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Antanas Linkevicius said.
The UN estimates more than 4,700 people have been killed in the fighting in eastern Ukraine since April. Ukraine accuses Russia of arming the rebels. Russia denies the charge, but acknowledges that Russians are among those fighting the government in Kyiv.
Lysenko said according to a cease-fire in September, the airport was to be left under Ukrainian government control. Russia and the separatists dispute this.
The resumption of fighting and the inability of the warring sides to find common ground scuttled plans for the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany to meet last week.
Dmitry Vlasov in Kyiv, Ukraine; Raf Casert in Brussels and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.