Monday, October 06, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: Dnipropetrovsk Prepares For Rebel Advance

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine -- The authorities in Dnipropetrovsk - a major city in eastern Ukraine - don't have to go far to appreciate the impact of the war in the neighbouring Donetsk region.


Wounded Ukrainian soldiers are flown into Dnipropetrovsk from Donetsk airport.

Stuck to the front window of the regional administration building is a list with the names of about 800 local people - men and women, young and old, military and civilians - who are missing or being held prisoner by pro-Russian rebels.

Inside, Deputy Governor Borys Filatov sounds determined, but looks weary.

Mr Filatov rubs his eyes as he describes the rebel-controlled territory a few hours drive to the east as a potential "new Somalia", by which he means a lawless region sending bandits and assassins towards Dnipropetrovsk.

He's in no doubt that the rebels will seek to extend their territorial gains, but warns them not to advance on his city.

And he draws a parallel with a famous battle from World War Two. 

"We're digging trenches and laying mines," he says.

"If the Russians try to invade this city, it will be their Stalingrad." 

Judging from a stroll along the embankment of the Dnipr River, with its crowds of cycling families, pensive fishermen and giggling brides and grooms, his fears appear exaggerated.

At the nearby Mechnikov hospital, though, it is a bleaker story.

There we saw several wounded Ukrainian soldiers who'd been evacuated from the fighting at Donetsk airport being wheeled into an emergency ward, with injured limbs and badly burned faces.

Watching their arrival was Dr Inesa Shevchenko, who heads a group of volunteers that takes care of the troops.

She'd hoped a ceasefire agreement signed between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian rebels would bring peace, but it's brought more casualties.

"We get wounded soldiers every day. We don't know who is shooting whom," she lamented.

Inesa is not the only type of volunteer in the region.

Outside the city, we visited a training camp of the Donbas Battalion, a volunteer battalion controlled by the Ukrainian interior ministry. 

Several months into the conflict, these volunteers are an important part of Ukraine's military effort - and they're being drawn from all walks of life.

One example: a 22-year-old music student from Kiev, who had told his family he was on a concert tour.

"It is my honour to fight against an outside invader," he said.

And in a sign that these are confusing times, this official volunteer battalion also contains foreigners, whose legal status is unclear. 

Alongside the yellow and blue Ukrainian flags, fluttering on makeshift flagpoles, I spied an unusual emblem, familiar from a previous war I'd covered.

The green, red, white and black flag with the symbol a wolf represents the Republic of Ichkeriya, or Chechnya.

Sitting beneath it was a group of Chechen exiles who'd flown in from various European countries.

They'd fought against Russia in two wars, but left their country when a pro-Kremlin leader came to power.

For the moment they are in training, but they hope to go to the front line.

"We recognise the evil that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and his military junta represents," said one of them, Musa, as he showed off his battalion's badge with its picture of late Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev.

"We are here to defend Ukraine's freedom, just as we've been defending the freedom of our country. We know that if we don't stop our enemies here, they will go further, to Europe, Poland or Lithuania - and beyond."

We also met a retired Georgian officer who had fought in his country's 2008 war with Russia.

For all the hopes of peace, the expectation in this frontier region is that the war in Ukraine will continue and possibly expand.

If it does, there are men with scores to settle - and fresh memories of confronting Russians on battlefield - who are ready for the fight. 

Source: BBC News Europe

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