Ukrainian offensive collapses after defections, withdrawals

Paratrooper detachment refuses to combat civilians and instead agrees to withdraw after mass defection of similar unit to pro-Russian side

Paratrooper detachment refuses to combat civilians and instead agrees to withdraw after mass defection of similar unit to pro-Russian side

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine - The beleaguered Ukrainian military suffered another blow Wednesday when a column of tanks and armored personnel carriers was stopped, disarmed and forced to retreat by an angry crowd of pro-Russian residents outside the rebel-held town of Kramatorsk.

The incident comes one day after interim President Oleksandr Turchynov announced anti-terror operations against pro-Russia rebel groups that have seized numerous government buildings and police stations in a dozen towns across the Donetsk region. The columns of Ukrainian troops confidently rolled through the countryside Wednesday after news surfaced that Ukrainian special forces had captured a military airport just outside Kramatorsk, 20km south of the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk.

There was an air of intense anxiety in Slavyansk Tuesday night as most residents, including pro-Russia militants, expected an immediate all-out offensive by Ukraine's armed forces after they massed outside the city.

However, by early Wednesday morning six armored vehicles sent from Donetsk as part of the anti-terror campaign appeared in Slavyansk's city center flying Russian flags and carrying heavily armed masked men equipped with Kalashnikovs and RPGs and wearing unmarked green uniforms, similar to those worn by Russian special forces in Crimea in March.

They were joined by several Don Cossacks and local armed volunteer units known as self-defense forces.

It was unclear as to the identity of the armed men manning the tanks, though many claimed to be a unit from a Ukrainian paratrooper division based in the southern city Dnipropetrovsk. The men, who spoke with Ukrainian accents, said they defected to the pro-Russian side shortly after arriving in the region the day before. 

MiG-29s and Mi-24 gunship helicopters were seen flying over the city's central Lenin Square as separatist groups repositioned tanks around the city's administrative offices and onlookers yelled, “Well done!” and "Rossia" (Russia).

The fate of the Ukrainian soldiers guarding the Kramatorsk airport is also in doubt as pro-Moscow volunteer guards have sealed off the airport's access roads and barricaded the soldiers inside. The Anadolu Agency witnessed the pro-Russia group denying a contingent from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe entry into the airport grounds. 

A local resident who identified himself as a former officer in the Soviet air force said the community had banded together to "keep the fascists from Kiev out of our affairs."

By late afternoon, a second column of tanks from Dnipropetrovsk found itself halted alongside the Kiev-Donetsk railroad after being intercepted by a large angry crowd of residents who refused to let them enter the city. Perched on top of the tanks, the conscript soldiers, many with the same haggard, weary expressions on their sweaty faces, were quietly adamant about refusing to participate in a civil war.

"We want to serve our country and do our duty, but you see these people are unarmed. None of us here are ready to shoot unarmed villagers," a Ukrainian soldier who asked to remain anonymous said, the embarrassment at his unit’s impotence written on his face.

"The Russians are involved. More than most of you think, actually. These people that are here to stop us are all paid by them. The local dentist distributes the money, but…these are unarmed civilians. They’re Ukrainians, like us. We can’t start killing each other," Kramatorsk resident Denis said standing alongside one of the tanks.

After hours trying to attempt a move, the unit's commander met with his Russian counterpart in a nearby cherry orchard. In a 15-20 minute chummy exchange, Ukraine’s Colonel Alexander Shvets agreed to disarm both his men and tanks and return to his base 240km away in Dnipropetrovsk. 

Wednesday's events appear to have brought a humiliating end to Kiev's attempt at bringing pro-Russia rebel towns back under government control.

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