LUHANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Hundreds of armed insurgents attacked a border guards’ camp in eastern Ukraine, and at least five rebels were killed in the clash, a spokesman for the guards said Monday.
Rebels in uniform near the Luhansk base promised safety for the officers if they surrendered and laid down their arms. The pro-Russian insurgents, who have seized government and police buildings across eastern Ukraine, have waged increasingly aggressive attacks on government-held checkpoints and garrisons in an attempt to seize weapons and ammunition from Ukrainian forces.
Serhiy Astakhov, the spokesman for the border guard service, told The Associated Press by telephone that a preliminary assessment indicated that five rebels were killed and eight injured in the attack on the camp in Luhansk, a major city not far from the Russian border. He also said seven servicemen were injured, three seriously.
The initial attack by about 100 insurgents was met by firing from the border guards, and the number of attackers swelled to around 400 a few hours later. Astakhov said the fighting was continuing and that the Ukrainian forces had sent an airplane to the area, but still had been unable to quell the attack.
An AP reporter saw at least one dead rebel soldier about a kilometer (half-mile) away from the base. Fellow fighters approached and broke into tears as they viewed the body. One insurgent said the dead man was a leading rebel commander.
The fighting stopped around 1.00 p.m. local time but resumed a few hours later with heavy gunfire heard in the area. There was no clear evidence of the Ukrainian troops’ air dispatch to the region.
One insurgent fighter in uniform, who gave his name as Vlad Sevastopolsky, said pro-Russian militants have surrounded the base but offered Ukrainian troops a safe corridor out, as long as they surrender their weapons. Sevastopolsky is from a rebel group based in the town of Antratsyt, another town in the Luhansk region.
Vladislav Seleznyov, press secretary for Ukraine’s operation against the rebels in the east, described the base as an important coordinating node for border guards across the province, and said the attack may have been an attempt to disrupt communications.
Seleznyov also said there was another rebel attack Monday on a government checkpoint in Slovyansk, a city in the Donetsk region that has been an epicenter of the pro-Russian movement. He said rebels had mined a number of power plants in Slovyansk, which he claimed would be detonated if the government were to move on the city.
In the regional capital of Donetsk, gunmen from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic on Monday entered the office of the local newspaper and took away its editor, Leonid Lapa, his deputy Valery Lapshin told The Associated Press. The gunmen said they were taking the Vecherny Donetsk editor for questioning.
For weeks, Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine has been the scene of deadly clashes between government troops and pro-Russian insurgents.
Months of protests during last fall and winter drove pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country. Many in Ukraine’s east are suspicious of the new pro-Western government in Kiev, and protests in favor of greater independence from the Ukrainian capital soon turned into a separatist movement as the Luhansk and Donetsk regions declared independence following hastily called referendums.
The conflict between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine escalated markedly in the past week, with rebels attempting to seize a major airport and the shooting-down of a Ukrainian military helicopter.
In Moscow, the Russian defense ministry announced on Monday a military exercise involving the launch of high-precision missiles. The ministry said the maneuvers of the Western Military District will continue through Thursday and will involve the deployment of Iskander surface-to-surface missiles.
Moscow didn’t specify the areas where the exercise will be held and made no mention of the situation in Ukraine.
Leonard reported from Donetsk, Ukraine. Laura Mills in Kiev, Ukraine, and Vladimir Isachenkov and Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.