Kiev forces have killed at least seven militiamen and injured dozens of people, including civilians, in clashes in the Lugansk Region. Some Kiev troop conscripts reportedly tried to desert and flee to the militia, and were shot at by their commander.
Both sides suffered losses during the battle near the village of Rubezhnoye, close to the city of Lisichansk in the Lugansk region. At least seven self-defense members were killed and 16 others injured, according to the militia. A spokesperson for Kiev’s troops reported two fatalities and seven wounded among their ranks.
The shooting followed botched negotiations between forces of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Lugansk and pro-Kiev troops, Ostap Cherniy, a spokesman for the militias, said at a press conference on Thursday night.
“When the Ukrainian military with a column of armored vehicles approached Lisichansk, militias tried to negotiate with them,” Cherniy said. “Shooting erupted during the negotiations.”
He added that local residents, including children, were among those who went to talk to the Kiev loyalists. The civilians were trying to block military vehicles of the National Guard and asking “not to kill them,” he said.
There are claims that at least some of the casualties among Kiev loyalists were not due to the militias. Some 30 of the conscripts wanted to defect, Cherniy said. The militias fed the prisoners and wanted to relocate them, but the other troops opened fire at the entire group, he added.
“After they boarded a bus and drove to the college, the military opened fire at the bus with a heavy machine gun,” said the self-defense force representative.
A militia member told RIA Novosti that it was the commander of the unit which was preparing to desert who opened fire at his own men. The information was confirmed by one of the defectors, who said he and his fellow conscripts decided to defect no to follow an order to fire at the militias and civilians.
“The commander ordered us to open indiscriminate fire,” the soldier said during the same press conference, adding that locals “saved him” from Kiev-controlled soldiers.
A military doctor Gennady Moralishvili said that most of those injured in the clashes are currently in the local hospital and are civilians, not militiamen. He added that the pro-Kiev National Guard set the city's train station on fire and when fire brigade arrived to put it out, they shot at them too.
Also damaged in the clashes was a local bridge, although it was not immediately clear how it was taken down. Some reports said the militias demolished it to prevent Kiev’s troops from transporting armored vehicles across the river. Others say that the loyalists destroyed it during the clashes.
A local railway was damaged as well, disrupting traffic in the Lugansk Region.
By nightfall, the gunfight ceased around the city, local activist Sergey told RT by phone, adding that the militias have taken control over all checkpoints that came under fire during the day.
Medics in local hospitals were reporting large numbers of injured coming in during the day, the activist says.
“There are a lot of injured among local population who came under fire on the outskirts of Lisichansk and Severodonetsk. Some are seriously wounded, who will be sent for surgery and treatment to [Lugansk].”
Militias said they captured three BMP-2 armored personnel carriers from Kiev’s troops.
The escalation of violence in the Lugansk Region follows weeks of a focused assault by the Kiev troops on the neighboring Donetsk Region. The confrontation there claimed dozens of lives both among the belligerents and local civilians, but neither side managed to take control over the entire region.
Reports of a possible shooting between different pro-Kiev troops came from the Donetsk Region on Thursday too, where at least 16 Ukrainian troops were killed and over 30 injured in a night attack on a checkpoint. While some accounts said the battle near the town of Volnovakha was a night raid of the militias, there are numerous accounts indicating that it could actually be a case of friendly fire, in which a unit of pro-Kiev militia hired by oligarch Igor Kolomoisky mistakenly attacked a facility manned by the Ukrainian military.
Kiev is trying to crackdown the militias in the defiant eastern Ukraine and is bringing in more troops in anticipation of the presidential election on Sunday.
“According to our data, there’s currently around 6,000 [Kiev troops in the Lugansk Region], and their number has increased in recent days,” Valery Bolotov, the head of the People’s Republic of Lugansk, said.
Lugansk and Donetsk Regions have refused to recognize Kiev’s coup-imposed authorities, and staged referendums on May 11, which garnered landslide support for independence from Kiev, after which the republics announced they will not participate in Ukraine’s presidential elections scheduled for May 25.