A fierce battle has erupted for control of eastern Ukraine’s main airport, just hours after future president Petro Poroshenko vowed the country would not become another Somalia.
Ukrainian fighter jets and combat helicopters on Monday struck the terminal building at Donetsk airport to try to dislodge separatist gunmen who seized the complex, triggering heavy gunbattles.
It was the most forceful action by the Kiev government in its battle to crush a bloody pro-Moscow insurgency that has raged in the industrial east since early April.
Plumes of thick black smoke rose from the complex as the sound of explosions and heavy machinegun fire rang out throughout much of the day.
Scores of gunmen stormed the airport in an apparent show of defiance against Poroshenko, the Ukrainian magnate who claimed a resounding victory in Sunday’s presidential poll.
Poroshenko has moved swiftly to stamp his authority as Ukraine’s new leader, and the country’s former masters in the Kremlin said on Monday they were ready to work with him.
The 48-year-old billionaire and former cabinet minister said Ukraine would press on with its offensive against the insurgents who now control about a dozen cities and towns, despite Moscow warning it would be a “colossal mistake”.
“There are no talks with terrorists,” said the centrist pro-Western tycoon known as the chocolate king for his confectionary empire.
“Their goal is to turn Donbass (east Ukraine) into Somalia. I will not let anyone do this to our state and I hope that Russia will support my approach.”
Sunday’s vote was seen as the most important in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history as it fights to stay united after months of turmoil and avert economic collapse.
But the insurgency, which has already cost at least 150 lives, thwarted polling in much of the east and rebels have defiantly refused to recognise the vote.
Russia, which has been threatened with a new round of Western sanctions if it meddled further in Ukraine after its seizure of Crimea in March, said however it was willing to work with the new leaders.
“We are ready for pragmatic dialogue, on an equal footing, based on respect for all agreements, in particular in the commercial, economic and gas spheres,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Rebels have rejected dialogue with Poroshenko, with Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin saying talks are only possible if Russia mediates, and calling for a prisoner swap and a withdrawal of Kiev’s troops.
Latest results give Poroshenko over 54 per cent of the vote, far ahead of nearest rival, the divisive former prime minister and Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko with 13 per cent.
They mean he will avoid the need for a run-off that would have extended uncertainty and put more pressure on East-West relations already at a post-Cold War low.
Observers with the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe said the election “largely upheld democratic commitments” and provided the new leader with legitimacy despite the problems in the east.
While turnout was strong across Kiev and the more pro-European west on Sunday, voting was largely blocked in Donetsk and Lugansk, two regions that make up 15 per cent of the electorate.
The election commission said voting had been suspended by militants in 24 of Ukraine’s 213 constituencies.
However, US President Barack Obama praised “courageous Ukrainians” for voting in the face of the threat.