Ukrainian Troops Abandon Outpost After Fierce Battle

LUHANSK, Ukraine -- Ukrainian forces abandoned a military outpost in a key eastern city Wednesday after fighting hundreds of pro-Russian militants to their “last bullet” in a fierce 10-hour gunbattle, the Ukrainian National Guard said.

Pro-Russian militants shoot from the roof of a residential building in Luhansk.

Six militants, who used mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, were killed and three Ukrainian servicemen were injured in the fighting overnight in the eastern city of Luhansk, the Ukrainian National Guard said in a statement.

The statement said that more than 300 heavily-armed pro-Russian separatists attacked the building housing a Ukrainian National Guard regiment Tuesday evening, firing from residential apartment buildings nearby.

Rebel snipers also shot from residential rooftops.

Soldiers fired back until they ran out of ammunition after a fierce 10-hour gunbattle, the statement said.

Parts of the building were destroyed.

Fighting in Ukraine’s embattled east has escalated sharply since elections May 25.

Ukraine’s acting president has said that the government, which is backed by the United States and the European Union, is using heavy weaponry and armored vehicles to strengthen its eastern border with Russia and stop an influx of fighters from there.

The United States and Europe accuse Russia of fomenting the separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine after Moscow swiftly annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in March.

Tuesday, Ukrainian troops sought to take the offensive against the increasingly bold rebels by launching a major assault on separatist positions in the rebel-held stronghold of Slavyansk.

The offensive came after pro-Russian rebels had launched several large recent assaults on Ukrainian forces.

They mounted a day-long siege of a border guards base on the outskirts of Luhansk Monday, engaged government troops in a two-day gunbattle for control of Donetsk’s international airport, and shot down a military transport helicopter.

Ukrainian President-elect Petro Proshenko, a billionaire who is one of Ukraine’s richest men, met with U.S. President Obama in Warsaw for talks on the crisis raging in the east of the country, Ukraine’s industrial heartland.

President Obama said after the talks that Ukraine can become a thriving democracy if the world community stands behind it, the Associated Press reported from Warsaw.

He pledged the United States would provide new support as Ukraine’s fragile government seeks a way out of the present crisis.

“The Ukrainian people made a wise selection in someone to lead them through this period,” Obama said after meeting with Poroshenko, the agency reported.

The U.S. also announced it would send Kiev an additional $5 million in equipment, as Ukraine’s military continues to suffer casualties in its daily clashes with insurgents.

At least 181 people, including 59 Ukrainian soldiers, have died in clashes in the east since fighting began in April, according to Ukraine’s top prosecutor, Oleh Makhnitsky.

Ukrainian officials say they do not keep track of insurgent deaths, so the actual total is likely to be far higher.

Many in the southeast fear that the number could rise dramatically if the military launches a campaign to retake the many towns and cities across the region that have been commandeered by insurgents.

Slavyansk is widely considered one of the rebels’ best-fortified positions, and the insurgent leaders in the city have aggressively deployed their forces to take down government aircraft and ambush troop convoys.

Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the rebels in Slavyansk, called Tuesday’s assault “the heaviest and longest attack” since the government’s counterinsurgency operation began several weeks ago.

Khorosheva said the city came under bombardment from artillery and helicopter gunships at 6 a.m., with only brief pauses throughout the day.

Ukrainian troops, she said, were massing on the city’s outskirts and appeared poised to move in.

“They’re going to destroy the whole city,” she said.

Writing on his Facebook page, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said government troops had broken through rebel checkpoints on the outskirts of the city in what he described as “a very intense firefight.”

Vladislav Seleznev, a Ukrainian army spokesman, had said earlier that a convoy of troops in armored personnel carriers was ambushed overnight while en route to Slavyansk, leaving one soldier dead and 13 wounded.

The violence in southeastern Ukraine has intensified in recent weeks, particularly after the election of chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko as the country’s new president.

The vote largely did not take place in the southeast because conditions were too volatile.

The new president’s first order of business will be to decide how aggressively to take on the insurgency, which has appeared to gain traction as reinforcements and supplies have flowed in across a porous border with Russia.

On Monday, guards fended off a coordinated assault by up to 500 rebels on a border command center in the far-eastern region of Luhansk.

Oleg Slobodyan, a spokesman for the Ukrainian border service, said that the area was quiet Tuesday but that there were indications that insurgents were regrouping for another attempt.

In a sign of the worsening conditions across the southeast, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it would curtail its monitoring work in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, both of which have declared themselves to be “sovereign” republics.

The OSCE has lost contact with two groups of international monitors in the past week, with both presumed to have been detained.

Spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said the OSCE was asking anyone with information about the monitors to contact the organization.

Source: The Washington Post