Ukraine's Army Launches Campaign Against Eastern Militants

Ukraine's army began a "special operation" in the east of the country Tuesday, moving against pro-Russian militants who are occupying government offices across the region.

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In eastern Ukraine today, a further escalation of conflict. Ukraine's army began a special operation against pro-Russian militants and successfully regained control of a military airfield. Authorities in Kiev had been warning that they would take action after militants occupying government buildings across the region ignored a deadline to lay down their weapons. Tanks and other armored vehicles took up positions along a road leading to one of the militant strongholds and the Ukrainian air force took to the skies. NPR's Ari Shapiro is in eastern Ukraine and sent this report.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: First thing this morning, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov spoke to parliament in Kiev. The anti-terror operation has begun, he said. And he had a message for the people of his country.

PRESIDENT OLEKSANDR TURCHYNOV: (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: If you want to defend Ukraine, he said, volunteer for the armed forces of Ukraine. As he spoke, tanks were rolling up to Slovyansk. That's the city where special forces and members of the pro-Russian militia killed each other in a gun battle on Sunday. This video posted to YouTube shows unarmed locals confronting the tank drivers this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: They shout, who are you going to shoot, swearing at the tank driver. Later in the day, the government staged another operation in the city of Kramatorsk. These are just two of almost a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine where militants have seized government buildings in the last few days. In the much smaller town of Horlivka, pro-Russian gunmen took over the police headquarters only yesterday. That was after the government deadline for separatists to lay down their weapons. It's a sign that far from giving up, the militants are trying to expand their footprint.

As you drive into Horlivka, there are highway checkpoints that did not exist a few days ago. Atop the piles of tires and wooden pallets, men flied a separatist flag of the Donetsk Republic. They wave us by. At the police headquarters in town, almost all the windows are smashed. Uniformed officers still come and go, walking past young masked men with riot shields. A spokesman who calls himself Alexander holds an impromptu sort of press conference just inside the barricade. He describes what happened yesterday when gunmen stormed this building and some of the police tried to stand their ground.

ALEXANDER: (Through Translator) The policeman came up, he pushed one person and he fell down. Because of that, he got injured. Now he's at the hospital. They shot one of the protestors.

SHAPIRO: With pro-Russian forces now occupying buildings in so many different cities, I asked this spokesman how closely the organizers communicate with each other.

ALEXANDER: (Through Translator) All the cities that were accepted into the Donetsk Republic are coordinated - not on our level but on the level of the leaders.

SHAPIRO: A video posted yesterday shows one man, who appears to be a leader here in Horlivka, introducing himself to saluting police officers. In the clip, the man describes himself as a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army. The West says this entire uprising has been orchestrated and executed by Moscow. But this opposition spokesman in Horlivka insists there are no Russians here. So what about the man caught on film saying he's a Russian military officer?

ALEXANDER: (Through Translator) This person that introduced himself, he just disappeared in five minutes. We wanted to find him but we could not. We don't know where he went. But we think since everything was blocked up here in front, he probably escaped in back, through the fence.

SHAPIRO: When Alexander is done with his press conference, he leads a small group of journalists past the young men with riot shields, past workers reinforcing the barricades with sandbags, into the dim lobby of the occupied building.

Here in the police headquarters, there are people who are still on the job, still in uniform, working on their computers. The protesters say they have allowed these people to continue doing their jobs so they can respond to emergencies and answer phone calls.

Our tour guide tells us people upstairs are guarding the weapons to make sure they don't fall into criminals' hands. The occupiers are making an obvious effort to maintain a sense of order amid the chaos. But just outside the barricade, a young woman named Alesa Tupika(ph) says it is the militants who are causing this chaos.

ALESA TUPIKA: We don't sleep - me and my family, we don't sleep normally. We are crying. We are worrying. My brother, he wants to go to the war. We must be ready to use our weapons because...

SHAPIRO: Against these protesters in your own city.

TUPIKA: For me, it's like - excuse me, it's like a raping of my country. I don't want anybody come to my city, to my country and doing everything they want. Actually, I'm ready to take a weapon to my hands and tell them they're stupid people who are ready to sell their country all for Russians who doesn't have any rights to come here at all.

SHAPIRO: She says it doesn't feel like the war is coming. It feels like the war has already begun.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Donetsk.

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