Ukrainian forces in port city prepare for "Russian-led" assault

Reuters , Sunday 31 Aug 2014

Ukrainian servicemen ride in an armoured vehicle near Debaltseve, Donetsk region, August 29, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Ukrainian forces and residents in Ukraine's eastern port of Mariupol braced for attack on Sunday from advancing pro-Russian rebels who Kiev says are backed by a Russian armoured column in a new offensive that has tipped the balance in a five-month war.

Pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops both used bulldozers to dig trenches on Sunday along the new front, a 40-km (25 mile) strip of coastal highway on the Sea of Azov, with battle looming for a city of half a million people.

Troops, supported by local residents and using excavating machinery donated by local companies, were digging earthen emplacements for artillery and dug-outs for infantry.

Alexandra, 28, a post office clerk with a small Ukrainian yellow and blue ribbon pinned to her dress, said she was ready to join the fight against a possible Russian and rebel attack.

"We are proud to be from this city and we are ready to defend it against the occupiers. We will dig trenches. We will throw petrol bombs on them, the occupiers," she said. "But I believe our army and (volunteer) battalions will protect us."

After weeks in which government forces have been on the offensive and rebels largely retreating into the two cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, the pro-Moscow forces opened a new front on the coast in the past week, taking the town of Novoazovsk.

Kiev, Washington and the European Union say the new advance is a result of Russia having sent hundreds of troops and heavy armour to rescue the rebels from what would have been a collapse. Moscow denies this.

The stretch of highway linking Mariupol, a city of almost half a million, to Novoazovsk was largely quiet on Sunday, although both sides have mobile patrols which are carrying out incursions into the other's territory.


Just two miles outside Novoazovsk, separatists from the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) were seen using a front-end loader to dig trenches and set up similar defensive positions.

They sought to persuade journalists that their success in taking Novoazovsk and opening up an advance along the new front had been without help from Russian forces.

"We have no new tanks. These are beaten-up machines seized from the Ukrainian army," said a rebel commander who identified himself by his nom de guerre of Gyurza (the Viper).

"We are defending ourselves with weapons seized from the Kiev junta," he said, using the catch-phrase that the separatists use to describe Ukraine's pro-Western leadership which took power when the Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich fled in the face of mass street protests in February.

"We have some Russian volunteers here, veterans who came to fight for democracy and people's rights. But there are no regular Russian troops around; go, ask and check," said Gyurza, a bearded man in his early 30s, who said he previously served in the Ukrainian military.

Metres away, the crew of an old Soviet-made T-72 tank, decorated with a DNR flag, huddled around a campfire, brewing tea and cracking jokes.

"This tank's name is Tanyusha, after my wife," said a soldier who described himself as a miner in Krasnodon, a Ukrainian border town further north.


Kiev's military says the forces who took Novoazovsk were led by Russian troops who crossed the border with tanks early last week and for a few days were held at bay until government forces had to withdraw.

A Ukrainian military spokesman in Kiev said the rebels' display of old tanks was a deliberate ruse.

"The Russians have moved their new tanks and replaced them with one old tank to fool the representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). We have information that the new tanks are not far away," said the spokesman, Andriy Lysenko.

At least four other tanks, an armoured personnel carrier and an anti-aircraft heavy machinegun on a flat-bed truck, all of 1970s-vintage, were seen in and around Novoazovsk, which has a population of just 12,000.

Loss of Mariupol to the Russian-backed rebels would be a huge military blow for Kiev since it would potentially open up a route down the coast line to Crimea, annexed by Russia in March, and another going north to the rebel stronghold in Donetsk.

In Mariupol, Evgen Shevchenko, a pensioner in his 70s said he was sorry he could not do more to help the Ukrainian defenders.

"I am limping, I am sick, but I gave whatever little money I could to the Azov battalion," he said, referring to a unit of pro-Kiev volunteers.

"Mariupol is Ukraine and Ukraine it will remain," he said. "We are ready to make Mariupol a modern day Sevastopol," he added referring to a World War Two battle between besieged Soviet troops and Nazi Germany's military for a Crimean port.

Local people organised a human chain to support Kiev's forces at the weekend. Mariupol's local authorities say they have mobilised civil defence battalions to help organise defences. The town's mayor, Yury Hotlubey, acknowledged that many townsfolk were fleeing but said most were staying put.

"Some are leaving and no one is stopping them ... but a vast majority of city's 480,000 population will remain," he said.

Ihor, 42, his wife, Lena, 40, and their five-year-old daughter, were getting ready to pull out - their second move in less than two months after having fled the big city of Donetsk.

"Donetsk, with all the pressure of armed men and shooting in the outskirts where we lived was already becoming unbearable in July, so we decided to move here as it was close to home," said Ihor as he and his wife loaded their belongings into a car.

"Now we have to move elsewhere, likely to Dnipropetrovsk as that is far enough away," he said, referring to a town further west as he struggled to squeeze a stuffed green elephant, his daughter's favourite toy, into the car.

"We are not going to wait for another repetition of war, we did nothing to provoke it and we do not want to be the part of it," said Lena pointing to their daughter.

"Our apartment in Donetsk is still standing, but neighbours say that the next-door building was hit, so maybe we will have a place to return to once this is all over," she said.

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