Eastern cities Artemivsk, Mariupol latest targets in Ukraine anti-terror operation (VIDEO)

April 24, 2014, 11:36 a.m. | Christopher J. Miller

A purported Ukrainian military helicopter flies over the eastern city of Artemovsk around 5 a.m. on April 24.
© twitter.com/K_Tereshkova

Shattering the night silence, explosions and gunfire rang out early on April 24 in the eastern city of Artemivsk, Donetsk Oblast as armed pro-Russian insurgents attempted to seize a military base that houses some 20 to 30 tanks and a cache of weapons.

Ukrainian forces repelled the 2 a.m. attack by a group of some 70 to 100 rebels who were armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, the country’s Ministry of Defense and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov reported. Hand grenades were used by the rebels in the assault, the Defense Ministry said.

Avakov said the group was led by a man with “an extensive beard,” hinting at pro-Russian separatist Alexander Mozhaev, who has been seen colluding with insurgents in the nearby city of Sloviansk. There, separatists have seized the city’s security services and administration buildings and taken several journalists hostage.

Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said in a statement that the attackers in Artemivsk sustained a “heavy” but unspecified number of casualties during the failed assault on the military installation on Chaikovskoho Street. Meanwhile, a Ukrainian soldier was “lightly wounded.”

Artemivsk journalist Natasha Zhukova told the Kyiv Post that the normally sleepy city was on alert Thursday morning following the attempted rebel raid, with all secondary schools closed and public transport temporarily shut down.

“People are a bit excited here,” she said. “But they are going to work as usual. It’s a nice, sunny day.”

Several Artemivsk residents posted video footage on Thursday of what are believed to be Ukrainian military helicopters buzzing over the city just after dawn.

In this video posted to YouTube by photographer Aleksey Zayets, a Ukrainian military helicopter circles above the city of Artemivsk around 5 a.m. on April 24.

YouTube user Yuriy Kozhukhovskiy on April 24 published the above video, which purports to show a Ukrainian military helicopter over Artemivsk around 5 a.m.

Artemivsk, known in more peaceful times for its sparkling wine factory and nearby Soledar salt mines, also houses one of Ukraine’s largest weapons depots.

In recent weeks, pro-Russian separatists have picketed the base and depot, holding signs adorned with slogans such as “Donbass is for peace” to keep Ukrainian soldiers from leaving the compounds with weaponry.

Several separatist rallies have also been held at the city’s Lenin Square and in front of its administration building, according to Zhukova. Separatists there have not shown the aggression of those in neighboring Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Gorlovka, where key government buildings were violently seized and the flag of the Donetsk Republic was raised.

Instead, she said, the group has struck a deal with the city’s mayor to abstain from storming the building in exchange for him allowing the Donetsk Republic flag to fly above city hall.

Separately, Ukrainian Interior Troops in the southeastern city of Mariupol took back the city council building from Kremlin-backed militants this morning, reported Novosti Donbass.

The pro-Russian separatists had illegally occupied the local legislature since April 13. Five were reported injured as a result of the operation, all separatists.

Overnight on April 17, three armed, masked separatists were killed when they shot on and attacked a Ukrainian military base in Mariupol. Thirteen additional militants were wounded as well. The Interior Ministry said that after the assault was repelled, a task force arrested 67 of the attackers.

Weapons were seized from them as well as Russian mobile phone communication devices.

In its statement on Thursday following the attempted storming of the Artemivsk military base, the Defense Ministry urged citizens not to partake in separatist activities.

“Leadership of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine once again strongly urges people not to get involved in provocative and illegal actions to support the activities of armed separatists in the eastern regions of Ukraine,” it said, adding that it reserved the right to use weapons against those who do partake in such actions.

Ukraine on April 22 announced the resumption of an anti-terror operation put on hold last week to purge pro-Russian separatists from the eastern Donetsk Oblast.

“The leadership of the Defense Ministry considers it necessary to recall that during the execution of tasks under the anti-terrorist operations, military personnel are entitled to use weapons in cases provided by law and the statutes of the Armed Forces of Ukraine," the Defense Ministry said.

Kyiv Post editor Christopher J. Miller can be reached at miller@kyivpost.com, and on Twitter at @ChristopherJM. Kyiv Post editor Mark Rachkevych contributed reporting.