Ukraine Liveblog Day 227: Fighting Rages Around Donetsk Airport

October 2, 2014
Smoke rising from the direction of Donetsk Airport. Photo: Paul Gypteau

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. An archive of our liveblogs 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.

For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

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


Geolocation of Residential Building in Donetsk from Which Rebels Fire

Ever since Russia’s pro-government Channel 1 inadvertently documented how rebels occupied an apartment building and used it to fire on the Ukrainian army at the Donetsk airport, Russian and Ukrainian bloggers have been trying to locate the building.

At one point in the video after the fighter has shot out the window from an AGS 17, the camera pauses on a panoramic view, where some white cisterns can be seen on the upper right:



Bloggers have identified this area to be in the line of sight from this building:

Translation: It’s behind that very same nine-story “return fire” building on 11 a Vzlyotnaya St. and next door, 12 Govorova St. 12.

In the video, the reporter says at 0:46 that “It’s quite likely the return fire will fly in,” so this has become something of a meme on social media. (The word for retaliatory fire in Russia is otvetka.)

Here’s the location on Google Maps, which is also in Street View.


On the Channel 1 web site, the news story claims that this building was evacuated.

Translation: “Now the return fire will fly in”. Yet on the Channel 1 site there’s the same video, but the text says “the building is evacuated.”

In fact, as we can see at  0:14 on the video, an elderly woman is still living in an apartment in the building.


The blogger said this area was used by the fighters for a number of purposes.

Translation: they have a medical clinic, headquarters and assembly place in this quarter.

Another blogger said shooting from Grads was coming from another residential area about 10 kilometers from the airport:

Translation: now from this area today for the entire day there has been the pounding of Grads and so on.

On the earth view of the Google Map it can be seen that this is a wooded area by an old slag heap where the Grads may have been set up.


This video uploaded September 27 and labelled “Storm of the airport. Givi unit (Donetsk 27.09.14)” also shows Russian-backed fighters shooting out of an apartment building that also has a close-up view of the cisterns and may be in or near the same building. Givi is the name of a “militia” commander.

At 3:30, the fighters pull out a copy of Google Maps themselves and discuss where it would be best to place the artillery.


(Warning: graphic scenes.)

At 2:49 a T-72 tank can be seen with a red flag. As we have reported before, these are of the type of tanks only available from Russia and which are not in the Ukrainian arsenal.


The rebels may have a kitten as a mascot, and a flag with a religious icon, but they have a skull emblem on the tank, and at the end of the video nonchalantly pass by two corpses, apparently airport technicians killed by shell fire.





Reporters from Komsomolskaya Pravda filmed from the same apartment building the day before as can be seen from a video uploaded September 30.

There is the same building as visible in the Google Street View photo, although the worse for the wear from shelling.


There is the same blue-painted corridor.


Also, there’s a door with the letters in Russian “TsDT” which could be an ironic “Central Tourist House” and indicate that the building is used for multiple purposes by the rebels as indicated above.


There’s also the same panoramic view out the window with the same white cisterns by the airport.



The air traffic control tower is visible at 2:18 in a zoom shot. At about 5:00 an artilleryman nick-named “Sokol” who has been riding around shooting from residential neighborhoods also talks about the need to change positions often.


Red Cross Confirms Death of Worker During Shelling In Donetsk
The Red Cross has confirmed the news we’ve been tracking for the last few hours:
Meanwhile, there’s still no clear evidence of who fired the shells that hit the Red Cross building or what direction they came from, but these shells landed far from the Donetsk Airport where fighting has been raging for weeks (map).

Though there is not evidence that we’ve seen which could tell us which side fired the shells, supporters of the separatists are already inferring that these shells were fired from Ukraine’s military. Yesterday, however, shells hit a school and bus stop in Donetsk, and while the Russian government and the separatists blamed Kiev, evidence seen by both the OSCE observers and by journalists suggest that the rockets came from the south, which means they were likely fired from territory occupied by Russian-backed militants.

The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, is blaming “terrorists.”

The Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavel Klimkin, blamed the separatists for Thursday’s attack.

“I have only one question. Do the terrorists have any idea of what humanity is all about when they shell the Donetsk office of the ICRC, whose only aim is to help people?” he said.

First Picture Shows Damage From Shells Which Hit Red Cross Building In Donetsk
These are the first pictures we’ve seen of the Red Cross headquarters in Donetsk, and they are disturbing:

New York Times reported Andrew Roth said that he heard “incoming” shells before the explosions, but there is not yet any indication of where the shells came from.

Red Cross Worker, Swiss National, Killed In Explosion At ICRC Headquarters In Donetsk
Simon Kruse is a journalist for the Danish newspaper Berlingske, and can confirm that at least one person was killed at the Red Cross headquarters in Donetsk:
OSCE Monitors Say Shells Fired on Bus Yesterday Came from South

The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission has issued its report today of the incident yesterday October 1 in which a bus near a school was shelled and 10 civilians were killed, although no school children were hurt.

We reported yesterday that the available evidence suggested that the rockets that hit the school likely came from separatist-held territory:

AFP’s Paul Gypteau photographed the craters at the scene.

We geolocated the scene on Google Street View which is near the Sarepta Pharmacy and also showed the separatists’ positions in the southwest. If OSCE is saying that the shelling is coming from the south, it is even less likely that the rockets were fired by the Ukrainian army at the airport.


Here’s what OSCE had to say today:

In Donetsk on 1 October, declared the first day of
school for areas under control of the so-called “Donetsk People’s
Republic” (“DPR”), the SMM was alerted by representatives of the “DPR”
“Ministry of Emergency Situations” about an incident close to a school
in Kyivs’kyi district (5km north of the city centre), where shelling had
allegedly caused civilian casualties. When at the scene, the SMM saw a
large crater, one metre in diameter, some 50 metres from the school,
which it assessed to have been the impact of a shell of an unspecified
nature. The SMM was guided inside the building by “DPR” representatives,
who showed the SMM two bodies on the floor. There were no casualties
among the school children, according to the “DPR” representatives. The
SMM moved to a street a few hundred meters from the school, where “DPR”
representatives said that shelling had caused other victims.  On
arrival, the SMM approached the bus station where it saw a bus almost
entirely burnt out, and could observe six bodies at the scene. Around
fifty metres north of the bus, the SMM saw a metallic object stuck in
the asphalt which appeared to be a large rocket canister. Given its
angle, the SMM assessed that it could have been fired from the south.

Here’s a screenshot of the Google Map showing both the Donetsk Airport in the north and the location of the shell to the south:


Red Cross Building In Donetsk Hit By Shells As Fighting Intensifies
Within the last hour there is still significant fighting around Donetsk airport, but now there are other explosions reported in the center of Donetsk:
Meanwhile, fighting continues at Donetsk airport which, while still occupied by Ukrainian troops, may be falling to Russian-backed militants.
Russian Journalists Document Separatists Using Human Shields In Donetsk
A newscast from Russia’s pro-government Channel 1 yesterday inadvertently shows Russian-backed fighters shooting from an apartment building by the Donetsk airport — and drawing fire.

The video shows correspondents climbing the stairs, saying the elevator doesn’t work as there is no electricity. An old woman is still living in the building.

Then at 0:17, a rebel is shown firing an automatic weapon out the window, and the reporter says it is an AGS grenade launcher aimed at the airport, and it does appear to be an AGS-30.

A fighter then complains at 0:30, “Look, they’re firing at residential buildings, and then they’ll say they don’t fire on the civilian population.” However, it’s not clear what is exploding and where. The separatists have constantly been bombarding the Donetsk Airport, held by Ukrainian soldiers, and the smoke makes it hard to definitively identify the buildings in the video. The explosions seen below could easily be the work of something like the AGS grenade launcher, but could be Grads or some other explosive. The point is that the claim made here by the fighter is inconclusive.

At 0:45 the reporter says the fighters with the AGS are now going to change their position again, “because it’s quite possible retaliatory fire will come.” At 0:59, amid a long series of loud noises, the reporter says “the Grad is working now.”

The LiveJournal blogger kado4nikov has pointed out that a video from Russia’s Channel 1 reveals that separatist fighters are in fact placing civilians in harm’s way. The Interpreter has the translation:

They fire from a residential building, provoking retaliatory strikes, as a result of which civilians can die, and then right away complain that the Ukrainians shell residential quarters? WHAT’s THAT ABOUT?!

From all appearances, these shelled homes are the fighters’ previous position, which they have exchanged for a new one and are reporting from it and also after shelling and reporting, they change to a new one. The meanness and brazenness of the lying are simply off the charts. They aren’t embarrassed to show this on Channel 1.

Then note also that when Sergei Zenin, Channel 1 correspondent says that the Ukrainian army is working the perimeter of the residential building with Grads, it is enough to listen to the sound, yes, this is the characteristic sound of firing from Grad systems, but it is not the landing and not the explosion of the shells. What’s clear even from the sound is that the Grad is working near the building in which the fighters have occupied, that is, it’s obvious that this Grad is clearly not Ukrainian.

We’ve analyzed the sound at the end of the video, and the repeated loud sounds could easily match the sound of outgoing Grad rockets, not incoming rockets. Only at one point in the video is there the kind of loud, low, reverberative rumble that we’d expect to hear from a nearby impact of an explosive, but it’s hard to tell if a weapon being fired from inside the building would have a similar effect. In short, it’s hard to conclude one way or the other whether the Ukrainian military is firing at the building.

What is clear, however, is that the separatists are firing weapons toward the airport from a building which is housing civilians. The Ukrainian troops inside the airport have no air or artillery support, no chance of reinforcements from the ground, no drones to spot their return fire, and have no way of knowing whether there are civilians living in buildings from which they are taking fire.

Earlier this week we documented Grad rockets fired by the separatists from a residential neighborhood in southern Donetsk.

The Ukrainian government’s “ATO & Crimea” website posts this video from Ukraine Today showing this and other examples of how the Russian media keeps documenting separatists firing from civilian areas (in English):

Yesterday rockets landed not far from the Donetsk airport, killing many civilians. As we documented yesterday, AFP reporter Paul Gypteau was on scene and took photographs that suggest the rockets came not from the Donetsk airport, as was claimed by the Russian-backed separatists and the Russian government, but from territory occupied by the separatists themselves and the rockets were headed toward Donetsk airport.

ATO & Crimea noted our coverage of this incident and .posted the “official position of Ukraine stated by NSDC spokesman Andriy Lysenko.”

Militants fired residential areas of Donetsk using “Grad” launchers. In particular, the shells hit in the minibus – city taxi, building of school №57, public transport stop. As a result of the shelling, 9 civilian residents were killed and 30 were injured. Shells also damaged 2-store apartment building №439 on Kirov Street.”

Shellings of school by terrorists in Donetsk caused particular concern personally UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “Targeting of schools [is] unacceptable in any circumstances”, – said the UN chief.

Because of fact of death of people the criminal investigation had begun. Although today the full investigation is impossible because terrorists control these territories. Those who are guilty in shelling school in Donetsk will be punished certainly.

When asked for additional comment, Roman Vybranovskyi, a member of the Foreign Media Unit of the Information and Analysis Center of the National Security and Defense Council, told The Interpreter  that the Ukrainian military did not fire Smerch rockets yesterday, the only rockets that, as we established yesterday, have the range to have been fired from Ukrainian territory into Donetsk.

Actually, our  military have clear order not to fire with artillery in direction of residential areas an cities (from July I guess) and clear order to hold ceasefire since 5th of September 18:00.

We had more than thousand attacks since then, most serious in Debaltseve and Donetsk airport, but still troops open fire only in response or to suppress the firing points.  To use Smerch, which causes wide range damage would be violation of the direct order.

Russian-Backed Militant Reportedly Accidentally Blows Himself Up In Donetsk Tram Stop
A fighter from the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” died on October 1 after playing around with a grenade at a tram stop, reports. The Interpreter has the translation:

Yesterday in Kalininsky district of Donetsk at the last stop of streetcar no. 9, there was an explosion. The incident was at 14:30 when there were people at the stop. Local residents say that DPR fighters came immediately to the scene after the explosion.

“My house’s windows look right out on the stop, I had a perfect view,” said a local resident, Pyotr. “When the explosion happened, I thought they had begun shelling our district and hurried to hide in the hallway. I dared to go up to the window some time after five minutes. I saw the DPR guys were doing something and bustling around.”

Local residents say that the explosion was the fault of a fighter who was demonstratively playing with a grenade. The bench at the bus stop broke into half from the explosion. and there was dried blood on the ground and wall of a nearby store. The fighter died as a result of the explosion.

According to preliminary information, passers-by and accidental eyewitnesses did not suffer any injuries.

While the source is generally reliable, we have not yet been able to independently corroborate the report.

Cleaning Up Unexploded Ordnance In Eastern Ukraine

For months now Ukrainian authorities have been destroying unexploded ordnance (UXO) — shells, landmines, and other explosives that are lying around former battlefields that are now in control of Ukrainian forces. When The Interpreter‘s managing editor James Miller was in Kiev at the beginning of September, he spoke with several Ukrainian officials who stressed the enormity of this project. Particularly concerning are the landmines, which Ukraine says they have not used by Russian soldiers in Crimea and Russian-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine have regularly used. Here are Miller’s tweets from a September press conference at the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center in Kiev:

Luckily, Ukraine has robust UXO clearing capabilities because there are so many unexploded shells from World War II.

Today Alex Luhn has a report up in Foreign Policy which highlights efforts on the other side of the buffer zone to clean up unexploded ordnance. Luhn has been closely following efforts of the Russian-backed fighters to take advantage of the ceasefire in some areas to destroy UXO before it kills more civilians:

“It’s very dangerous here. We’ve already been de-mining this area for a month,” said Andrei, a former Ukrainian army sapper from a nearby town, as he inspected the crater left behind by the blast. He said he had decided to continue this line of work with the rebels after he saw village boys playing with unexploded shells. “You’ve seen only a tiny bit of what we usually destroy. We’ve been destroying three such collections a day for a month now.”

Before the blast, I watched as the sappers laid more than 100 rocket, artillery, and mortar shells and grenades in a line at the bottom of a shallow ravine, and then snaked a long, green sock of plastic explosives across them. They ran a wire from the ravine to a makeshift bunker they had dug a few hundred feet away. We had barely reached a vantage point on a roadside a little more than a mile away when they detonated the cache…

Most of the more than 3,500 people killed in the conflict (predominantly civilians) have died from shrapnel wounds sustained during shelling, but reports have begun to trickle in of others hurt by unexploded shells and explosive devices. This week, a 16-year-old lost his hand and several others were injured in a village north of Luhansk when he tinkered with a rocket-propelled grenade. In August, a woman was seriously wounded returning to Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region, a city that government forces had recently retaken from the rebels, when she opened her door and set off a tripwire attached to an F1 grenade, according to the Luhansk region’s interior ministry. Locals have also reported farm animals killed by land mines or tripwire explosives.

A video from Luhn:

Russian-Backed Fighters Continue To Assault Donetsk Airport

Last night, Semyon Semyonchenko, the commander of the Ukrainian Donbass volunteer battalion, appeared on the Shuster Live television programme and said that two of the terminals at Donetsk Airport had fallen to Russian-backed forces. 

His comments were, however, apparently contradicted by Andrei Lysenko, the spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council, who told Ukrainska Pravda that the airport was fully controlled by ATO forces, who had repelled a separatist attack during the night. 

Lysenko claimed that there had been no Ukrainian military casualties, and that 7 separatist fighters had been killed and around 10 wounded. 

This morning, it was reported that yet another assault had begun on the airport, starting at 6:00 (3:00 GMT).

RBK-Ukraine reported that Vladislav Seleznev, the spokesman for the ATO Press Centre, had announced (translated by The Interpreter):

At 6 am today, militants began an assault on Donetsk Airport across a broad front, using small arms. 

At 7:01 GMT (10:01 Kiev time) Russia’s RT uploaded a YouTube video of a report from the airport.

The video shows Russian or separatist fighters moving on foot past burning hangars. One tank is visible though it is unclear if it is in use.

Around an hour later, RBK-Ukraine reported on another announcement from Seleznev. 

Seleznev said that the battle was still going on, with a second wave of the assault commencing at 8:45 (5:45 GMT). 

He said (translated by The Interpreter):

They are now using only two tanks. They have already practically left. We can say that this assault has been repelled too. Yesterday, while fighting off the third assault, our forces knocked out their tank and took down 7 separatists. The guys were in standard Russian uniforms and had new AK-100s.

Smoke could be seen rising from the airport area this morning. 

The Donetsk City Council also reported that artillery fire and explosions had been heard since 3 am, with shells striking the Petrovsky district (to the west of the city) being heavily shelled at around 5am.