BLAHODATNE, Ukraine — Just days before Ukraine holds a presidential election, pro-Russia insurgents attacked a military checkpoint in the east Thursday, killing 13 troops in the deadliest raid yet in weeks of fighting, Ukraine’s leader said.
A rebel commander who claimed responsibility for the attack said one of his men also was killed.
Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of escalating the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern regions and trying to disrupt Sunday’s election. In a Facebook posting, he called for an urgent session of the UN Security Council and said Ukraine would present evidence of Russia’s involvement.
The rebels attacked a checkpoint near the town of Volnovakha, firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said. The Ukrainian Defence Ministry said the attackers hit an ammunition section in one of the vehicles, which exploded in a fireball.
AP journalists saw 11 dead Ukrainian soldiers scattered in a field outside Volnovakha, 30 kilometres south of the major eastern city of Donetsk.
Witnesses including a medical worker said more than 30 other Ukrainian troops were wounded in the attack and some of them were in grave condition. All the wounded were being treated at nearby medical facilities.
The carnage cast a shadow over Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election, which authorities in Kyiv had hoped would defuse tensions and stabilize the country. Separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, however, have declared independence from the government in Kyiv and have pledged to derail the vote. Election officials and voters have faced intimidation and sometimes death threats from the rebels in those areas and some residents have called for a boycott of the presidential vote.
Kyiv authorities now admit it will be impossible to stage the vote in some eastern areas.
Three charred Ukrainian armoured infantry vehicles, their turrets blown away, and several burned trucks stood at the site of Thursday’s attack. Scorched bodies, apparently burned by the explosion and fire, were scattered near the vehicles.
Residents said attackers used an armoured bank truck, which the unsuspecting Ukrainian soldiers waved through, and then mowed them down at point-blank range. Their account couldn’t be independently confirmed.
In the town of Horlivka, a leading rebel commander claimed responsibility for the raid. He showed off an array of seized Ukrainian weapons and provided specific co-ordinates about the location of the attack. There was no way to independently confirm his claim, however.
“We destroyed a checkpoint of the fascist Ukrainian army deployed on the land of the Donetsk Republic,” said the commander, who wore a balaclava and insisted he be identified by his nom de guerre, “Bes,” Russian for “demon.” He said one of his men also was killed.
“The weapons you see here have been taken from the dead, they are trophies,” the rebel commander said, showing automatic and sniper rifles, rocket grenade launchers and bulletproof vests in the courtyard of the occupied Horlivka police headquarters.
“People living in western Ukraine: Think about where you are sending your brothers, fathers and sons, and why you need any of this,” he added.