UNITED NATIONS/LUHANSK UKRAINE – Hundreds of pro-Russia rebels armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades mounted a daylong assault Monday on a key government base used to coordinate the defense of the country’s border with Russia, prompting the deployment of air support by government forces.
Border guards killed at least five rebels in repelling the attack on their base, a spokesman for the border guard service said.
In the center of Luhansk, some 10 km (6 miles) away, a blast at an administrative building held by the insurgents claimed more lives. A health official for the Luhansk region told Interfax news agency that at least seven people had been confirmed dead in what rebels described as a government airstrike.
The government denied carrying out an airstrike and said the blast was caused by misdirected rebel fire from a portable surface-to-air missile launcher.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry swiftly condemned what it said was a government attack on the rebel-held building and urged U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet, who was visiting Kiev on Monday, to help calm unrest in Ukraine.
“We urge our Western partners to use their influence on Kiev, to stop Ukraine from descending into a national catastrophe,” the ministry said in a statement.
Russia also called an emergency meeting of the United Nations’ most powerful body Monday — despite months of blocking any Security Council action on Ukraine — to introduce a resolution demanding an immediate halt to deadly clashes in Ukraine’s east.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow wants Security Council action to end weeks of violence in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine between government troops and pro-Russian insurgents, a move immediately denounced by the United States as “hypocritical.”
The draft resolution “urges the parties to commit themselves to a sustainable cease-fire,” and demands “that the parties establish humanitarian corridors” so that aid can be delivered and civilians who wish to leave can do so safely.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki countered that Russia was being “hypocritical” by calling for a cease-fire and help for civilians to leave combat zones safely while “doing nothing to stop” Ukrainian separatists from attacking targets in the east and holding international monitoring teams hostage.
The rebel assault on the government base continued into the night, ending around 9 p.m. with the border guards succeeded in repelling the insurgents.
Earlier, rebels in camouflage had promised safe passage to the government troops if they surrendered and laid down their arms. The pro-Russian insurgents, who have seized government and police buildings across eastern Ukraine, have waged increasingly aggressive attacks on government-held checkpoints and garrisons in an attempt to seize weapons and ammunition from Ukrainian forces.
The attacks are deeply troubling for Ukraine’s new government, whose President-elect, Petro Poroshenko, has pledged to crush the separatist movement in the east. The conflict has escalated markedly in the past week, with rebels attempting to seize a major airport and the shooting-down of a Ukrainian military helicopter.
Serhiy Astakhov, the spokesman for the border guard service, said that five rebels were killed and eight wounded in Monday’s attack on the walled compound on the western fringes of Luhansk, a major city not far from the Russian border. He said seven servicemen were wounded, three seriously.
The initial attack by about 100 insurgents was met by gunfire from the border guards, and the number of attackers swelled to around 400 a few hours later, he said. Astakhov said the Ukrainian armed forces sent aircraft to the area, and at least one fighter jet was seen flying overhead.
An Associated Press reporter saw about 40 rebel fighters, and one of them said that more than 200 were involved in the assault on the base.
At least one dead rebel fighter fell about a half-kilometer away from the base. Fellow insurgents approached and broke into tears as they viewed the body. One insurgent said the dead man was a leading rebel commander.
Heavy gunfire was heard in the area, and rebel fighters fired at least six rocket-propelled grenades at the government base from the rooftop of a residential building.
One insurgent fighter in uniform, who gave his name as Vlad Sevastopolsky, said pro-Russian militants surrounded the base and offered Ukrainian troops a safe corridor out, as long as they surrendered their weapons.
Vladislav Seleznyov, press secretary for Ukraine’s operation against the rebels in the east, described the base as an important coordinating node for the border guards, and said that the attack may have been an attempt to disrupt communications.
He said there was another rebel attack Monday on a government checkpoint in Slovyansk, a city in the Donetsk region that has been an epicenter of the pro-Russian movement. He said rebels set mines at a number of power plants in Slovyansk, and threatened to detonate them if the government moved on the city.
In the regional capital of Donetsk, meanwhile, gunmen from the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” entered the office of the local newspaper and took away its editor, Leonid Lapa, his deputy, Valery Lapshin, said.
The gunmen told the journalists they were taking the editor in for questioning. He was released several hours later, Lapshin said.
For weeks, Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine has been the scene of deadly clashes between government troops and pro-Russian insurgents.
Many in Ukraine’s east are suspicious of the new pro-Western government in Kiev, which came to power when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia in February after months of street protests in Kiev. Protests in the east demanding greater freedom from the Ukrainian capital soon turned into a separatist movement, as the Luhansk and Donetsk regions declared independence following hastily called referendums.
In Moscow, the Russian Defense Ministry on Monday announced a military exercise involving the launch of high-precision missiles. The ministry said the maneuvers of the western military district will continue through Thursday and involve the deployment of Iskander surface-to-surface missiles.
Moscow didn’t specify the areas where the exercise will be held and made no mention of the situation in Ukraine.