DONETSK, Ukraine — In a major challenge to Ukraine’s newly elected president, armed separatists early Monday sent forces into the biggest airport in eastern Ukraine and are in a standoff with the Ukrainian army, an airport spokesman said.
Just hours after candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko won a first round victory in national elections, several dozen men of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” arrived at the airport at 3 a.m. and demanded that the Ukrainian army hand over the facility, spokesman Dmitri Kossinov told McClatchy.
Three more truckloads, carrying about 60 armed separatists, arrived at about 10 a.m. and headed to the terminal.
The army, which has stationed at a minimum several dozen troops at the airport, has refused to surrender, he said.
“They are still in their positions. They didn’t leave the airport,” he said
Airport authorities closed the airport at 7 a.m. to all flights.
But there was no immediate sign of an army response to the crisis. No military reinforcements had been sent in, and, as late as noon, nine hours after the crisis began, security services had failed even to set up a checkpoint at the main road to the airport.
Police also were not present, other than traffic police.
A spokeswoman for the “People’s Republic” said she had no information. “I don’t know when the airport will be opened today. Nobody informed me about the airport,” said the spokeswoman, who refused to give her name.
And there was no word of the attempt to take over the airport on “Radio Respublica,” the FM station run by the “People’s Republic.”
The rest of Ukraine Monday was celebrating Poroshenko’s landslide victory. In his first remarks to reporters Sunday night, he said he would travel to the Donetsk region immediately after he is inaugurated, expected early next month.
The “People’s Republic” responded that Poroshenko’s visit to the Donbas region is “hardly possible.”
Later in the evening, Porosenko stated that he would not negotiate with the “People’s Republic.”
For now, it is up to the interim government how to manage the latest crisis in the east. Up to late morning, the government had not made a statement.
“It’s possible that the DPR panicked after Poroshenko’s statement,” said Sergey Tkachenko, the head of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a election watchdog group. “They may have tried to capture the airport so they can have the possibility to leave the country quickly.”