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Ukraine fighting intensifies after election

Wednesday - 5/28/2014, 2:20am  ET

EDS NOTE; GRAPHIC CONTENT - A man covers a body of an unidentified woman killed by shrapnel following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces, outside railway station in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Monday, May 26, 2014. Exit polls from Sunday's first round of the new presidential election predict Petro Poroshenko will be elected president in this bitterly divided country, and he vowed "to bring peace to the Ukrainian land", yet he described the separatists as "Somali pirates" and authorities in Kiev launched strikes against the militants. (AP Photo/Max Vetrov)

PETER LEONARD
Associated Press

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) -- Dozens of dead insurgents lay piled in a van outside a morgue Tuesday, and a rebel said more were on the way. Bomb disposal experts disarmed a mortar round lodged in a corpse. A wrecked and blood-soaked truck at the Donetsk airport showed the grisly aftermath of battle.

The fight for eastern Ukraine seems to have taken a ferocious turn, as both sides step up their attacks after the rebellious regions mostly boycotted a presidential election that delivered a decisive winner.

Following a day and night of the heaviest and most sustained assault by Ukrainian government forces to date, the pro-Russia separatist movement finds itself facing an emboldened and resolute national leadership.

With Sunday's election of billionaire Petro Poroshenko to the presidency, Kiev has received grudging and tentatively positive diplomatic overtures from Russia.

Leaders of the 28 EU countries, meeting Tuesday in Brussels, said they expect Russia to cooperate with newly elected President Petro Poroshenko, winner of Sunday's elections.

In a statement, the EU heads of state and government said Moscow should "use its leverage on the armed separatists to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine."

But with evidence that irregulars are continuing to pour into Ukraine from Russia, it remains unclear whether the Kremlin is encouraging fighters whose attack Monday on the Donetsk International Airport showed their increasing aggression.

What is certain is that the Ukrainian government's anti-insurgent operation has been kicked into a higher a gear, with the military unleashing fighter jets, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery.

Government opponents insist they have taken up arms to defend eastern Ukraine's Russian-speaking population and have appealed to Moscow for assistance. Kiev condemns the insurgents as "terrorists" bent on tearing the country apart.

Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko said 40 people, including two civilians, were killed in fighting after government troops thwarted a rebel attempt to seize the airport, Ukraine's second-largest.

The bodies of about 30 insurgents were brought Tuesday morning to the Kalinin Hospital morgue, said Leonid Baranov of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. The fighters had been wounded and were being transported to a hospital in a truck when it was shot up by government forces, he said.

Inside the morgue, bodies were stacked crudely in heaps. Some were missing limbs. Experts removed an unexploded mortar round that had embedded itself in one man's abdomen.

Baranov said up to 100 rebels were probably killed in combat, but many bodies had not yet been recovered because they were in areas under government control. His death toll could not be independently confirmed.

"As they are controlling the airport and the fight was there ... we cannot right now identify exactly how many victims we have," he said, adding that hundreds were also wounded.

A bloody flatbed truck stood wrecked outside the airport, with body parts and teeth strewn around it. Rebels said it had been fired upon by a helicopter.

After being squeezed out of the airport following hours of intense fighting, insurgents called in several hundred reinforcements. Many were from a unit calling itself the Vostok -- or East -- Battalion, which Donetsk People's Republic representatives have said includes combatants from Russia's North Caucasus.

Later, Ukrainian forces pounded rebel positions, forcing the fighters to retreat in disarray. One overturned truck down the road from the airport showed signs of having struck a tree at high speed.

In an emergency televised address Tuesday, the Donetsk mayor warned residents to stay indoors but also gave assurances that government troops would not push into the city center.

Sporadic gunfire was heard throughout the day around the airport. Many shops and restaurants in Donetsk did not open. One resident, Alexander German, built a sandbag barricade at a crossroad near the overturned truck.

"We're defending ourselves. They insult us, call us bandits. Do you see weapons on me?" he said, displaying his open palms.

Others nearby spoke angrily about the unrest gripping the city -- fury that could intensify as what is increasingly looking like an outright military conflict picks up pace.

After Poroshenko claimed victory in the election, hopes were raised of a push for unification in the deeply divided nation. He has vowed to negotiate a peaceful end to the insurgency.

But he also compared the separatists to lawless "Somali pirates" and promised he would stop them from sowing more chaos.

The billionaire candy magnate and politician is known for his even-handed and pragmatic rhetoric, and he has supported building strong ties with Europe, but also stressed the importance of mending relations with Moscow.

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