Rebels overtake bases in Ukraine
LUHANSK, Ukraine — Pro-Russian rebels dislodged government troops from three bases in eastern Ukraine, a new blow to the beleaguered armed forces as the president-elect promised new initiatives on Wednesday to help end the mutiny in the country's industrial heartland.
Petro Poroshenko, speaking in Warsaw after meeting with President Obama and other Western leaders, rejected a call from Ukraine's interim authorities to introduce martial law in the restive east. Poroshenko said he would seek to pacify the region with an offer of amnesty and a promise of early regional elections.
The move follows nearly two months of fighting in the region, where pro-Russia rebels have seized government buildings, declared two sprawling provinces independent and fought government forces.
Poroshenko's offer, expected to be detailed in his inaugural address on Saturday, occurred as the Ukrainian troops suffered a series of humiliating setbacks.
After hours of fighting in which six militants were killed and three Ukrainian servicemen were wounded, the National Guard forces ran out of ammunition and had to leave their base near the eastern city of Luhansk.
Rebels seized a border guard base on the city's outskirts after a nearly two-day-long siege and forced guards out of another base in the nearby town of Sverdlovsk on the Russian border. The guards there were granted a safe exit and left with their weapons.
A rebel fighter who gave only his first name, Andrei, said they want to create a “humanitarian corridor” that would allow civilians to flee to Russia to escape the fighting.
The setbacks highlighted the ineffectiveness of Ukraine's badly trained and cash-starved armed forces, which have been plagued by bad communication and poor supply lines.
Ukraine's provisional authorities have blamed the recent military failures on pro-Russia former President Viktor Yanukovych, claiming that his corrupt government starved soldiers of resources and training.
The fund shortage is so desperate that the Defense Ministry had to set up a charity account to support the armed forces while volunteers across the country have been buying provisions for the soldiers.
Obama, in Warsaw for a celebration on the 25th anniversary of Poland's first partially free election, praised Poroshenko for reaching out to the east, while offering $5 million in new aid for Ukraine's military — for equipment that could help in the fight against the insurgents.
The White House said the aid would include, for the first time, body armor and night-vision goggles for the use of troops. The United States has provided ready-to-eat meals and money for medical supplies and other non-lethal assistance, including clothing, sleeping bags and generators.
Many Ukrainian units in the east are manned by poorly-trained conscripts, who come from the region and appear reluctant to engage the rebels.
In the skirmishes overnight into Wednesday, Alexei Toporov, a spokesman for the insurgents in Luhansk, said the guards were fleeing, and the insurgents did not try to detain them.
“We released them and let them go home. We impeded nobody,” he said.