DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine claimed Monday that they have seized control of the Donetsk airport after days of intense fighting. Ukrainian officials have not confirmed a retreat.
"All attempts of the Ukrainian army to take the airport and to get revenge for the defeat of the last year... have failed," rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said at a press conference early Monday in Donetsk.
He accused Ukraine of using rocket and artillery fire with an intensity that rebel forces had "never experienced before."
The city of Donetsk, the separatist stronghold, was shaken by heavy outgoing and incoming artillery fire over the weekend as a battle raged for the air terminal and surrounding areas. Sporadic explosions could still be heard from the direction of the airport early Monday.
Reduced to rubble, the airport is of limited strategic importance in the short term, but has great symbolic value. In the longer term, the government fears that the separatists could use the airport to expand their control over eastern Ukraine and create an air supply route with Russia.
Ukrainian officials did not confirm a retreat. Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko would say only that the situation remained tense.
Yuriy Biryukov, an adviser to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, wrote on his official Facebook account early Monday that wounded soldiers had been evacuated from the air terminal overnight, but did not say how many troops had remained.
"We will not abandon our own, nobody has forgotten them," he wrote. "Everything will be (ours), but just not right away. We are learning."
Three Ukrainian servicemen were killed and 66 wounded in the previous 24 hours, Lysenko said. He would not say how many of those casualties occurred at the airport.
The U.N. estimates that more than 4,700 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since April.
The separatists increased the stakes last week by successfully taking over large sections of the airport, where Ukrainian troops had remained despite coming under rocket attacks for months on end. The Ukrainians then unleashed a counter-offensive, supported by a hasty reinforcement of troops and heavy armor.
Lysenko said that according to a cease-fire agreement reached in September, the airport was to be left under Ukrainian control. Russia and the separatists dispute this.
Russia and Ukraine both expressed willingness on Monday to work toward implementation of the cease-fire agreement, including a provision to pull back heavy weapons. But each side put the onus on the other for the lack of progress.
The resumption of fighting and the inability of the warring sides to find common ground scuttled plans for the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany to meet last week.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said ahead of a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday they would discuss how preparations for such a summit were developing. "But in any case we must decide this week whether we are on the path toward preparing for a summit or not," he said.
Dmitry Vlasov in Kiev, Ukraine, and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.
By MSTYSLAV CHERNOV (Associated Press)