Ukraine Liveblog Day 169: 195 Ukrainian Troops Return From Russia, Attacked By Militants

August 5, 2014
Screen grab from BBC interview of Ukrainian soldiers in camp near Gukovo.

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

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For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

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Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.

Churkin Speaks At Emergency Meeting Of UN Security Council

The Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, has just spoken at an emergency meeting, called by Russia, “on the humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine.”

Churkin, citing recent comments from the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that “today, in all certainty, there is a need to speak of a true war” in eastern Ukraine.

He said that Ukraine was continuing military operations and taking lives “in spite of all agreements,” noting agreements from April 17 in Geneva and July 2 in Berlin.

Churkin made a number of specific allegations.

He said that members of the Ukrainian National Security Council had set up “punitive militias… funded by oligarchs,” who were attacking the people of the south-east. 

He claimed that there is “continuing information from locals about the use of phosphorus and cluster bombs.” It should be noted here that Russian state-owned media have been caught out before fabricating stories about Ukraine’s use of phosphorus, including presenting footage from the 2003 Iraq war as being from Ukraine.

He cited numbers of civilians killed in towns and cities across the Donbass, blaming the Ukrainian government for these deaths with their use of Grad rockets and artillery.

Churkin also repeated claims that Ukrainian shells were falling on Russian territory, and that a Ukrainian mine had exploded on the border near Gukovo. The Russian ambassador made no mention of the well-documented incidents of shelling from Russian territory into Ukraine.

He then claimed that more than 800,000 Ukrainians have come to Russia since the crisis began. Earlier, John Ging, Director of the Operational Division at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, cited a figure from Russia of 740,000 Ukrainians crossing into the Russian Federation since the start of the year. He said that the UNHCR had agreed with this figure.

Churkin said that Russia did not require material assistance from outside in dealing with this claimed flow of refugees.

Kiev, he said, has refused all Russian proposals for aid “scornfully”.

The key point of Churkin’s address, was his statement that Russia would like to send humanitarian assistance to eastern Ukraine. He proposed that a humanitarian convoy could be sent, with international monitors, to distribute aid to Lugansk and Donetsk.

This proposal is feared by some to represent a pretext for a wider, open Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine, under the guise of humanitarian intervention.

So far, none of the other speakers at the event have endorsed this specific proposal. 

Airstrikes Reported In Donetsk
There are reports of explosions across the city of Donetsk right now as airstrikes have reportedly hit the city.
Timelapse Map Of Separatist Territory in Eastern Ukraine

LiveUAMap is a website dedicated to mapping the current crisis in eastern Ukraine. Using their maps we have made a timelapse GIF of the territory controlled by the separatists since July 13th. As you can see, the amount of territory controlled by the separatists has shrunk significantly, the Ukrainian military offensive has worked to divide the eastern ‘Lugansk People’s Republic’ (LPR, or LNR on the GIF) from the Western ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DPR, or DNR on the GIF) and the fighting is growing closer and closer to the main cities in the region, Donetsk and Lugansk.

You can also see that despite the fact that the  DPR has lost a lot of territory, much of the LPR, especially areas that border Russia, remain intact, which is how the separatists are getting new armored vehicles, tanks, fighters, and other supplies.


Heavy Fighting In Western Donetsk – 2 Civilians Dead

The website of the mayor of Donetsk, Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, has made two announcements on reports of armed fighting in the Petrovsky district, on the western edge of the city.

The Petrovsky district lies to the immediate east of the suburb of Marinka, which was entered by Ukrainian forces yesterday

The first post at 17:00 (14:00 GMT) said:

As of 17:00, active fighting is ongoing in the Petrovsky district in Donetsk. Residents report powerful explosions, aggressive shooting and damaged infrastructure in the area. The rest of the city is also restless – automatic gunfire and shots from heavy weapons are heard periodically.

At around 14:00 over 100 transformer substations went offline as a result of shelling in the Petrovsky district. A large part of the district was left without electricity.

Later, at 19:00 (16:00), came another announcement from the mayor’s office:

As of 19:00 on active fighting continues on the border of the Petrovsky district, the village of Aleksandrovka and the town of Marinka. We have been reliably informed now that two civilians have been killed. Teams from the Donetsk regional branch of the Ukrainian Emergencies Ministry and paramedic crews are working at the scene of the shelling.

Right now, residents of the Kirovsky district report that artillery shells are reaching the Tekstilschik area. This report is confirmed.

Russia Calls For UN Security Council To Hold Emergency Meeting On Ukraine

The Russian state-owned news agency ITAR-TASS reports that the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, has said that his delegation is convening an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council “on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine.”

The meeting is intended to begin at 17:00 local time in New York (21:00 GMT), however the UK, which current presides at the UNSC has not yet given consent to the meeting.

Churkin said:

“So far, the British presidency is jibbing but we will insist on convening the meeting this evening.”

ITAR-TASS notes:

Earlier on Tuesday, the Russian foreign ministry said that the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration and the International Committee of the Red Cross were ready to discuss Russia’s initiative to send a humanitarian mission to eastern Ukraine.

Russia’s ‘humanitarian initiative’ is a possible pretext to an open intervention by Russian armed forces, who have been growing in number on the Ukrainian border.

Ukrainian Forces Withdraw From Yasinovataya

Andrei Lysenko, the spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council (SNBO), has told reporters that Ukrainian forces have withdrawn from the town of Yasinovataya, just to the north-east of Donetsk.

The SNBO claimed yesterday that the town had been liberated from separatist control.  

According to Novosti Donbassa and Ukrainska Pravda, Lysenko said (translated by The Interpreter):

“Two days ago our soldiers entered Yasinovataya. But a situation then arose that threatened the lives of civilians. Therefore the ATO command took the decision to return to our original positions on the outskirts of the town to avoid harming the local population. Work is currently under way to enable people to get out of there, and then the town will finally be liberated.”

Lysenko also said that a section of railway near Yasinovataya had been blocked off.

Yesterday, the separatist Colonel Cassad LiveJournal claimed that Ukrainian forces were, had, “despite their loud statements,” failed to take control of Yasinovataya.

Near Doubling of Russian Troops by Ukrainian Border

Quoting “Western officials,” The New York Times reports an increase of Russian military force at the border with Ukraine, totalling up to 19,000-20,000 battle-ready troops. The Financial Times also reports around 20,000 troops, based on military intelligence by senior NATO military officers.

This data portrays a significant increase from the 12,000 Russian troops that were reported to be present in the same region at last week.

According to The New York Times:

“American intelligence experts say that the advance by Ukrainian government forces on Donetsk […] might prompt Mr. Putin to send his forces across the border under the guise of a “peacekeeping operation.”

Our managing editor James Miller already announced the increase of Russian military presence on 1 August after 48 hours of monitoring social-media reports “that show Russian armor very close to the border, many of them confirmed to be within mere kilometres of Ukraine.”

Whether or not this armed military presence means that Russia is planning to invade, none of the three articles can definitively conclude, but Miller points out that “even if Russia does not formally invade, how much of this equipment will not-so-quietly slip across the border and reinforce an insurgency which has already cost so many civilian lives?”

HRW: Separatists Disrupting Medical Services

Human Rights Watch have published a report in which they claim that separatist fighters in south-eastern Ukraine are seriously disrupting medical services in the area.

Here is the introduction to the report:

Insurgent forces in eastern Ukraine have threatened medical staff, stolen and destroyed medical equipment and hospital furniture, and compromised the ability of civilian patients to receive treatment, Human Rights Watch said today. Insurgent forces have also expropriated ambulances and used them to transport active fighters.

Such acts are strictly prohibited under the laws of war, which afford special protections to medical units and personnel as well as to the wounded and sick, Human Rights Watch said.

“Pro-Russian insurgents’ attacks on medical units and personnel are putting sick and vulnerable people and those who care for them at risk,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This appalling disregard of people who are sick or wounded can be deadly and needs to stop immediately.”

Human Rights Watch has also documented attacks on hospitals by explosive weapons that killed at least two medical staff. While the circumstances suggest Ukrainian armed forces launched some of these attacks, further investigation is needed to determine responsibility.

The extensive report, which discusses a wide range of incidents at a number of hospitals in great detail, is available to read here.

UK Student Reportedly Freed After Being Held By Separatists

Reports emerged today that a British medical student, Mohammed El Gasim, aged 21, was released yesterday after being abducted in Donetsk and detained by separatists.

On July 31, photos of El Gasim’s passport, student identity cards and visa were distributed by separatist social media and blogs. 


A post containing the photos on a VKontakte page, labelled as “Dispatches from the Novorossiya militia,” said that the documents belonged to “the junta’s mercenaries,” and that more than one Sudanese mercenary with British citizenship had been captured.

Another pro-separatist Facebook page posted the images, saying that the documents belonged to two Sudanese mercenaries posing as students. 

On August 2, Pressa Ukraina reported that Said Ismagilov, the Mufti of the Spiritual Directorate of Ukrainian Muslims, had announced that one British student of Sudanese origin had been detained by separatists from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

Ismagilov said that the student, who he declined to name publicly, had been seized while out with friends in Donetsk. He said that the separatists were planning to use him to claim the presence of NATO fighters in the area. 

Today, it was reported by Will Stewart in the Daily Mail that El Gasim was released from captivity on August 4 in Amvrosiivka. He is reportedly in Donetsk at the moment:

A family friend said: ‘He got into an argument because he wasn’t speaking Russian. A rebel patrol picked him up.

‘Then the rebels blogged that his was among the bodies of several “black mercenaries” fighting for the government.

‘The blog showed his passport and said he and the others were all in Ukraine uniforms.

‘But in fact he was alive and was put to work digging trenches.

‘Apparently he was released yesterday morning. But as of late last night, we still had not heard from him.’

It is understood he called his parents early today.

An official from the university at which El Gasim is studying also spoke to Stewart:

‘This student happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

‘I spoke to the young girl who witnessed it. It was in the street near a shop when one Russian man did not like it that our student spoke English.

‘He said something like – “this is Russian area, it is only allowed to speak Russian here, no English”.

‘Our students are normally very quiet and hate conflicts. I am sure he was not the first who attacked, but at the end it there was a small fight, and somebody called the Donetsk People’s Republic (as the self-styled rebels call their region) people to sort it out.

‘They took away our student and later called to say that he was arrested for two weeks for hooliganism.

‘I know that he spent these two weeks somewhere outside Donetsk, doing some digging work for the DPR.

‘On Monday, we got a phone call from DPR that he was released.

‘This is all we know, our boy is somewhere there in the streets, and he does not have a mobile to call us.

‘We have told about him to all who can help.’

The university official said she is desperately trying to get back to the city to help find him.

‘There is no safe route now. I must find a way to get there. I hope our boy will get help from somebody.’ 

The article also notes that separatist military leader Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov, had mentioned finding and shooting “mercenaries of the negro race” at a recent press conference:

Strelkov – accused by Kiev of being a Russian intelligence colonel – in a note to journalists wrote: ‘The commander of the local unit of the Militia is prepared to provide to you, for the purpose of shooting video, the corpses of the killed [mercenaries]. They still lie untouched on the battlefield – specifically so that they can be captured on video. How you manage to make it there is your own concern; however, in this case, I’m providing you with the information.’

However, no images of such corpses were seen and university sources insisted that as of yesterday the student was alive though ‘lost’ in Donetsk.

The comment may also have referred to the abduction of several Nigerian students by separatists last month. Efforts are reportedly under way to negotiate their release, according to Andrei Lysenko of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council.

Japan Approves Further Russia Sanctions

AP reports that Japan has formally approved further sanction against Russia.

40 individuals and two groups will have assets held in Japan frozen, while a ban has been imposed on imports from Russian-occupied Crimea.

AP notes that:

Japan had previously only suspended bilateral talks with Russia on some issues, and imposed an entry visa ban on 23 individuals whom it hasn’t publicly named.

8 Separatists Injured By Bomb In Donetsk On August 4

UNIAN reports, citing an announcement by the Donetsk city council (translated by The Interpreter):

“On the 4th of August at  22:16, an explosive device detonated at the intersection of Mira Prospect and Universitetskaya Street, at the very moment that a group of armed members of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ passed by. As a result, 8 of them received injuries with varying degrees of severity.”

The report also notes that gunfire was heard across the city last night. There were hourly mortar volleys in the Petrovsky and Kirovsky districts. As a result of the shelling, a transformer substation in the Petrovsky district was damaged. 50 blocks of flats are now without electricity. 

The report notes that this outage adds to an already strained and damaged power grid in the city, with many areas now under-supplied with electricity. Water supplies have also suffered disruption, however engineers successfully reconnected the Tekstilschik and Mirny areas following shelling damage.

The identities of those apparently targeted by the bomb on August 4 or any information on possible perpetrators have not emerged yet. 

Switzerland Expands List of Prohibited Russian Individuals and Organisations

Switzerland has added 26 individuals and 18 organisations to a list of those “prohibited from entering into new business relationships with financial intermediaries in Switzerland,” Reuters reports.

The list, including both Russians and Ukrainians, is intended to work in parallel with EU sanctions so as to prevent funds outside the EU being transferred into Swiss banks. It is worth noting that as those named in the list are not prevented from carrying on with existing business relationships, the large volume of extant Russian business with Switzerland is not at risk.

Caroline Copley, writing for Reuters, notes that:

Switzerland, a global commodity trading and private banking hub, is a popular destination for Russia’s wealthy elite and reluctant to take steps it fears could compromise its cherished neutrality or damage closely-nurtured trade ties with Moscow.

Around 75 percent of Russian crude oil exports are traded through Geneva, according to the Swiss government, and Russian assets in Swiss banks stood at nearly 13.8 billion francs ($15.2 billion) in 2012, according to the Swiss National Bank.

The list now included 87 individuals and 20 organisations. Among those named today are Aleksandr Boroday, the Russian ‘prime minister’ of the self-declared separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Khodakovsky, the Ukrainian leader of the separatist Vostok Battalion, Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov and a number of Russian security officials.

195 Ukrainian Troops Return From Russia, Attacked By Militants

195 of the Ukrainian soldiers who were forced to take shelter across the border in Russia yesterday have returned to Ukraine.

Having returned from Russia, they were attacked by separatist militants, far from the border, near Olginka in the Donetsk region.

Ukrainska Pravda reports (translated by The Interpreter):

Militants fired on the column of unarmed Ukrainian soldiers from the 72nd brigade (195 men), who had returned from Russian territory, reports the ATO press centre on Tuesday morning.

“The aggressors likely knew the route of the column. Their cowardly attack was aimed at discrediting the command of the ATO forces and the leadership of the state,” said a statement.

They ATO press office gave no other details.

However, according to the spokesman of the National Security and Defence Council (SNBO), Andrei Lysenko, the attack occurred near Olginka, reports Interfax-Ukraine.

“Today, at approximately 6 am near Olginka in the Volnovakhsky district of the Donetsk region, militants treacherously fired on an unarmed column of 195 Ukrainian servicemen who had returned from Russian territory.

According to him, the column was accompanied by a military law enforcement detachment, who took to the fight to protect the troops.

Lysenko echoed the statement given by the ATO press centre:

“Considering that this extraordinary incident took place on territory controlled by ATO forces, we consider this event to be a provocation, arranged by pro-Russian mercenaries with the aim of discrediting the armed forces and leadership of Ukraine, playing it as a case of Ukrainian soldiers’ revenge against ‘traitors,'” he said at the SNBO.

Later, the ATO press office clarified that none of the soldiers had been killed in the attack.

Yesterday, the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg visited the camp near Gukovo where the soldiers were put up. His report demonstrates  Russia’s management of the situation for media advantage, and the level of security in the area.

His video report is online here