KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - Ukrainian airborne troops landed in a town in the east of the country on Tuesday apparently at the start of a crackdown to root out pro-Russian separatists - but they pulled back into base after meeting a hostile reception from local civilians.
The town of Kramatorsk is one of 10 localities in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east where separatist rebellions have broken out. The move suggested Ukraine’s authorities were going ahead with a plan for a broad military crackdown to end the unrest which began 10 days ago.
Separately, the state security service announced a similar operation was under way in the town of Slaviansk, about 20 km (13 miles) away where pro-Russia militants are occupying state buildings to push their demands for referendums on the status of Ukraine’s eastern regions.
In Slaviansk, a Reuters correspondent said there was no sign of forces loyal to Kiev. A Ukrainian airforce plane flew over the town but there was no apparent readiness to try to take control of state buildings occupied by pro-Russia militants.
Local media reported that Ukrainian troops elsewhere in the region were re-asserting control over traffic on main roads in an effort to restore Kiev’s authority.
The troops disembarked at Kramatorsk from two military helicopters after an air force plane made what appeared to be an unsuccessful attempt to land at the airfield where separatists and their sympathizers had set up barricades at the entrance gates.
Pro-Russian militants in the town itself have - like their comrades in other localities - targeted police headquarters and state security offices for occupation, apparently since they offer a ready source of weapons.
This correspondent heard several shots fired from inside the air base as a crowd of separatist sympathizers moved towards the gates after the troops landed, but these appeared to be warning shots.
The crowd of several hundred who were almost exclusively supporters of the pro-Russian insurgency appeared to be all civilians and no weapons were visible.
There were no clashes and Ukrainian authorities did not report any casualties, in contrast with Russia where media, without citing sources, reported a death toll of at least four.
The capture of the airfield at Kramatorsk was welcome news for Ukraine’s new leaders after a string of setbacks as the separatists seized control of official buildings with impunity.
In Kiev, interim president Oleksander Turchinov savored a triumph, announcing the airfield had been “liberated”.
But, on the ground in Kramatorsk, a Ukrainian general who said he was the commander of the “anti-terrorist” operation had a hostile reception as he sought to reason with the crowd.
The officer, Gennady Krutov, said: “We have information that there is shooting going on in here. I came here to clarify that. There is an anti-terrorist operation going on in here. I am here to protect you. I address you as citizens of our common country,” he said.
The crowd shouted: “Hands off the Donbass,” a name for the surrounding region of eastern Ukraine, which is mainly Russian-speaking.
As talks grew heated, the crowd, numbering several hundred, jostled the general who at one point lost his hat in the commotion. With night falling, he and his men withdrew into the air base.
Locals, some of them holding the Russian flag, had set up barricades of sand and tires outside the gates to the airport and prior to the troops landing some of them appeared to be preparing petrol bombs.
Authorities may have told the army not to adopt too robust an approach in the anti-terrorist operation given Thursday’s four-way talks in Geneva on the crisis.
Russia, taking part in the talks with Ukraine, the European Union and the United States, has told Kiev not to use force against the separatists in the run-up to the talks.
Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Slaviansk; Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Robin Pomeroy