Ukraine forces battle for control of key airport

KIEV — Ukraine’s president vowed Sunday to reassert government control over eastern regions as the army unleashed a counter-offensive against Russian-backed separatist fighters vying for command of the airport in the city of Donetsk.

The separatist stronghold was shaken by intense artillery fire during the weekend as a bitter battle rages for the air terminal and surrounding areas.

Streets in Donetsk, which was home to 1 million people before unrest erupted in spring, were deserted Sunday and the windows of apartments in the center were rattled by incessant rocket and mortar fire.


The warring sides exchanged rocket fire along several points in the roughly 220-mile front line.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Regional authorities loyal to the government said two children, aged 7 and 16, were killed when a rebel shell hit their home in Vuhlehirsk, a town 45 miles northeast of Donetsk.

Further west, in the rebel-controlled city of Horlivka, two were killed and another 16 injured as a result of rocket attacks, city council secretary Oleg Gurbanov said in a statement.

President Petro Poroshenko told a crowd of several thousand gathered in the center of the capital, Kiev, that Ukraine would not ‘‘give up an inch’’ of its land to Russian-backed separatists.

Hundreds of people, including Poroshenko, held up signs reading ‘‘Je Suis Volnovakha,’’ referring to the 13 people killed when a passenger bus was shelled in the eastern town of that name. The message was an echo of the ‘‘Je Suis Charlie’’ tribute adopted after the terrorist attacks in Paris.


The separatists upped the ante last week by successfully taking large sections of Donetsk airport, where Ukrainian troops remained despite coming under rocket attacks for months on end. Both sides have incurred losses in the close-quarter combat.

The rebels’ progress has sparked a desperate Ukrainian fight-back supported by a hasty reinforcement of troops and heavy armory.

Yuriy Biryukov, an adviser to Poroshenko, said on his Facebook account Sunday that Ukrainian troops had received orders to unleash heavy shelling of known rebel positions.

‘‘Today we will show just how much we can smash their teeth in,’’ Biryukov wrote from a location near the fighting.

Separatist statements indicate Ukrainian forces may have attempted to burst into Donetsk itself, the first such effort since the unrest started in the spring.