Ukraine launches airstrikes against eastern militants

Last Updated May 26, 2014 8:15 PM EDT

DONETSK, Ukraine - Ukraine's new president-elect said Monday he wants to begin talks with Moscow and end a pro-Russia insurgency in the east, but the rebels escalated the conflict by occupying a major airport, and the government in Kiev responded with an airstrike.

As darkness fell in Donetsk, a city of about 1 million, it was unclear who was in control of the airport. Hundreds of fighters of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic had been brought by trucks to a wooded area on the fringes of the airport, many of them armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and automatic rifles. At least one warplane streaked over the city, firing flares, and explosions were heard from the direction of the airport.

The rebels, who declared independence for Donetsk and the neighboring Luhansk region after a hastily called and dubious referendum two weeks ago, regarded Sunday's election of candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko as president to be illegitimate.

In a victory speech, the billionaire promised to open a dialogue with residents of eastern Ukraine and to guarantee their rights. The rebels and many others in the region say they fear the February ouster of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych will lead to the repression of its predominantly Russian-speaking population by Ukrainian nationalists.

Poroshenko also said he would not negotiate with armed insurgents that he calls terrorists.

"Peace can only be achieved through a dialogue with people," he said Monday. "This process cannot be stopped with the use of arms only; arms can be used exclusively against killers and terrorists."

Russia has heavily criticized an offensive by Ukraine's military against the rebels, and Poroshenko indicated he wants it to end quickly.

"The anti-terrorist operation cannot and should not last two or three months," he said. "It should and will last hours."

But aggression by rebels, as at the Donetsk airport, could make it impossible for Ukrainian forces to back off.

News reports said scores of armed insurgents descended on the airport about 3 a.m., and all flights were canceled. Heavy gunfire broke out, Ukrainian fighter jets and helicopters flew overhead, and dense black smoke rose in the air.

CBS News' Charlie D'Agata reported that pro-Russian fighters were taking up positions in a wooded area around the Donetsk airport as fighter jets roared overhead.

The Ukrainian military's response at the airport is the largest since trouble in the country's eastern regions began three months ago. It came as a shock to local residents.

"I can't reach my home because the helicopters are shooting everywhere," a woman told CBS News.

"I'm so afraid, I don't want to die," another woman said. "We're peaceful people. Why are Ukrainian forces attaching us?"

Donetsk media, citing an unnamed health official, said Monday that one person was killed and two others wounded by machine gunfire at the city's main train station. Further details were not immediately available.

Later, the Donetsk People's Republic said on its Twitter account that a truck carrying wounded from the airport area had come under fire and that the driver was killed.

In Kiev, international observers hailed Ukraine's presidential vote as a "genuine election," saying it was held freely and fairly Sunday.

Poroshenko, known for his pragmatism, supports building strong ties with Europe but also has stressed the importance of mending relations with Moscow. Upon claiming victory, he said his first step as president would be to visit the Donbass eastern industrial region, where pro-Russia separatists have seized government buildings, declared independence and battled government troops in weeks of fighting.

"Peace in the country and peace in the east is my main priority," Poroshenko said Monday, signaling that he would end the Ukrainian army's much-criticized campaign to drive out the separatists.

The tycoon looked decidedly composed Sunday night when the exit poll results were announced but he got emotional Monday when asked about the crisis in the east.

"The anti-terrorist operation cannot and should not last two or three months," he said. "It should and will last hours."

The president-elect also had harsh words for the pro-Russia gunmen, comparing them to Somali pirates.

"Their goal is to turn Donbass into a Somalia, where they would rule with the power of machine guns. l will never allow that to happen on the territory of Ukraine," Poroshenko said, adding that he hoped Russia would support his efforts to stabilize the east.

Poroshenko's spokesman told the Associated Press that the date for his inauguration has not been set yet.

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia appreciated Poroshenko's statements about the importance of Ukraine's ties with Russia and his pledge to negotiate an end to fighting in the east.

"We are ready for dialogue with representatives of Kiev, with Petro Poroshenko," Lavrov said at a briefing, adding it was a chance that "cannot be wasted." He emphasized that Moscow saw no need for any involvement by the United States or the European Union in those talks.

"We don't need any mediators," he said pointedly.

Lavrov also noted Russia's longstanding call for the Kiev government to end its military operation in eastern Ukraine.

Less than 20 percent of the polling stations in eastern Ukraine were open Sunday after gunmen intimidated residents by smashing ballot boxes, shutting down polling centers and issuing threats. But nationwide, about 60 percent of Ukraine's 35.5 million eligible voters turned out, and long lines snaked around polling stations in the pro-Western capital of Kiev.

Joao Soares, special coordinator for the OSCE observer mission in Kiev, hailed Sunday's vote even as he said monitors saw multiple threats, intimidation and abduction of election officials in the east.

"Ukrainian authorities should be commended for their efforts in the extraordinary circumstances to facilitate an election" which was held in parts of Ukraine's volatile east, Soares said.

With votes from 80 percent of the precincts counted Monday, Poroshenko was leading with about 54 percent of the vote in the field of 21 candidates. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was running a distant second with 13 percent. Election officials confirmed that Poroshenko had avoided a runoff.

Authorities said official results would be announced by June 5.

Poroshenko struck a tone of unity Monday, saying he had no "rivals or political opponents in the race" and all of the other main candidates had congratulated him.

"More than ever, Ukraine now needs to be united," he said.

The election, which came three months after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was chased from office following months of street protests, was seen as a critical step toward resolving Ukraine's protracted crisis.

Since Yanukovych fled in February, Russia has annexed Ukraine's southern Crimea Peninsula, the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk have declared independence, and the interim Ukrainian government has launched an offensive to quash an uprising.

The interim Kiev government and the West have accused Russia of backing the separatist uprising. Moscow has denied the accusations.

President Barack Obama praised Ukrainians for participating in the voting "despite provocations and violence." He said the U.S. supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and is eager to work with the next president.

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