DONETSK — When Ilya Pogorelov leaves his apartment, everything seems normal, at least in the neighborhood where he lives. The 21-year-old student lives with his parents in Kirowski, on the outskirts of Donetsk.
"You don't see any fighting here," he says by phone. In this residential area, parents are out walking with their kids, and the supermarkets are open. But Pogorelov says he did notice some fighter planes and helicopters flying over this morning.
Indeed, war is very much in the air, and on the ground. Pro-Russian militants near the eastern Ukrainian town of Sloviansk shot down a military helicopter Thursday, killing 14 soldiers and a senior general, acting President Olexandr Turchynov said. This came after local media reported intense shooting around Sloviansk and Kramatorsk and the shelling of the two cities.
And since the beginning of the week, Kiev has been engaged in an anti-terror operation against pro-Russian militias in Donetsk. The Ukrainian army and National Guard have been combating rebels in the streets there. At least 45 people have died so far, said the head of Donetsk forensics. And on Wednesday evening, the National Guard released a statement saying that more soldiers and militiamen had been killed.
According to incoming President Petro Poroshenko, the Kiev government wants to arrest the separatist leaders and try them. "We are no longer willing to tolerate that these terrorists abduct people and shoot them, that they occupy buildings or quash laws," he said earlier this week. The future president wants the army to be better financed and has promised that every soldier would be paid the equivalent of $83 a day.
Residents asked not to venture out
On Wednesday, Donetsk Mayor Alexander Lukyanchenko urged city residents to stay in their homes and not to go near windows or out onto their balconies. Lukyanchenko called on citizens not to panic, and tried to calm spirits.
The separatist leaders of the self-appointed "Donetsk People's Republic" (DPR) imposed martial law and a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
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Armed men show up at Sloviansk City Council (Photo - Yevgen Nasadyuk)
But on Wednesday the separatists claimed they'd won back the airport. Journalists have no access to heavily damaged Sergei Prokofiev Airport, and the Ukrainian military has barricaded the roads leading to the airport. "Russian TV is saying that the militias control the airport, and Ukrainian TV is saying they don't," Pogorelov says.
Pogorelov, the student from Donetsk, says he has no intention of obeying separatist orders. "But nobody ventures into the streets downtown anyway," he adds. The main thoroughfare, Artema Street, had been swept clean, with businesses and supermarkets all closed.
Donetsk is particularly dangerous for foreigners. On Monday, pro-Russian separatists abducted four observers for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who hail from Denmark, Estonia, Turkey and Switzerland.
Getting diplomats out
Special OSCE envoy Wolfgang Ischinger is considering removing observers from Ukraine. "When security conditions are such that one fears for the life and limb of our teams, then I'm afraid you do need to get them out," he told Germany’s ZDF TV channel.
On Wednesday, separatists in Donetsk released a Polish priest they had been holding captive. The man of God, who works in Kazakhstan, came to visit members of his order in Donetsk and intended to participate in an ecumenical service on Constitution Square. Separatists abducted the priest on the street and held him, according to Polish Bishop Marian Buczek. The priest is presently in the charge of Polish diplomats.
In the wake of his election to the presidency, billionaire Poroshenko is under enormous pressure. He must prevent eastern Ukraine from breaking away, find a compromise in the gas conflict with Russia, and jump-start the economy. Breathing down his neck are the region's parties and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who after her electoral defeat may go over to the opposition.
"In the gas conflict, Russia is going to try to talk Poroshenko into a foul compromise and take advantage of him," says Kyryl Savin, who heads the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Kiev. "And if Poroshenko sticks to his guns, Russia will continue to destabilize Ukraine."
What does this mean for the civilian population? In Donetsk, Pogorelov reports that it is very difficult to leave the city. Trains are not running regularly, if they are running at all, and the university told its students to stay home and prepare for their exams via Internet.