Six Ukrainian soldiers have been killed by pro-Russian rebels, officials say on the eve of separatist elections that Ukraine and its Western backers say will undermine an increasingly hollow truce accord.
Losses in the last 24 hours “as a result of fighting were six servicemen killed and 10 wounded,” Volodymyr Polyovy, spokesman for the National Security and Defence Council, said on Saturday.
Polyovy said the deaths showed that separatist forces “continue to violate the ceasefire agreement” signed on September 5.
One of the main attacks took place at the ruins of Donetsk airport, which remains partly in Ukrainian hands, despite lying in territory mostly controlled by the separatists, officials said.
Explosions were audible from central Donetsk most of the night, apparently from artillery targeting the airport.
The bombardments formed a frightening backdrop to elections on Sunday in the self-declared, pro-Russian statelets known as the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic.
There is little doubt about the winners of the polls, with separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko on course to become head of the Donetsk republic and Igor Plotnitsky in Lugansk.
Separatist authorities, who have close links with their Russian counterparts, say three million ballots have been printed and that voting by internet has already started. There’s even an exit poll planned for late Sunday.
“These elections are important because they will give legitimacy to our power and give us more distance from Kiev,” said Roman Lyagin, election commission chief of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Vera, 45, who was selling eggs in a small Donetsk market, said she would vote “against the Fascists” — an insult against Ukraine’s pro-Western government that has become widespread in the separatist regions and in Russia’s powerful state media machine.
However, retired teacher Lyubov Georgiyevna, 75, said “I won’t vote. It won’t change anything.” She said above all she wished she could sleep at night without the sound of explosions.
Russia says it will recognise the legitimacy of the separatist elections, infuriating Ukraine and Western countries who describe the votes as another blow to the already teetering ceasefire.
The White House on Friday said: “We deplore the intent of separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine to hold illegitimate so-called local ‘elections’ on Sunday.” The European Union and the NATO military alliance have also condemned the polls.