Russian Incursion Continues In Ukraine

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Ukrainian forces are defending the port city of Novoazovsk from what they say is a Russian invasion. Scott Simon talks to correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. European leaders meet in Brussels to discuss further sanctions against Russia. That's after Russia's military incursion this week in eastern Ukraine. Those Russian troops and their military equipment are widely believed to be helping separatist fighters and their new offensive in southeastern Ukraine. The rebels were able to capture a strategic town on Thursday. And NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is there. Soraya, thanks very much for being with us. Tell us about this town that was captured.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The town is called Novoazovsk, and it's a resort town on the seaside here - the sea of Azov. There about 13,000 people live here, although it looks very vacant at the moment. But what happened is, earlier this week, separatist forces came in. They fought with Ukrainians, who - and the separatists claim they fled fairly quickly. But the fighting was pretty intense for three days according to the residents that we spoke to.

And at this point, it's under the control of the pro-separatist forces. Now we actually saw somebody who looked - I mean, he sounded Russian. He had a Russian gun. There seems to be a mix of people here. Definitely not locals who are here. But the separatists claim that they do not have any Russians among them. That these are Ukrainian fighters who are here that are creating the new Russia and that all the weapons and tanks that we're seeing - and we've seen at least three tanks here. They claim that these are confiscated from Ukrainians.

SIMON: Is the takeover popular?

NELSON: It's really hard to tell. I spoke to a city administration worker. And she was rather frightened. It took me a while to even get her to give me her first name. You know, I asked her if she wanted Ukraine to come and liberate them. And she wouldn't answer that question. They don't report being pressured by the separatist fighters who are here. They are very visible, and we had to get permission to come here. In fact, we only have one hour in this town before we have to leave. It's very strictly controlled. But people are walking around the streets, the few people that are here. They look relatively relaxed, just nervous to talk to strangers.

SIMON: What are conditions like in the town after the fighting?

NELSON: Well, it's relatively quiet, but there are about 6,000 refugees who remain here, who've come from other parts of Donetsk province or Oblast, and they are in need of supplies. And so, apparently, before the separatists came and took this town, Rinat Akhmetov, the Ukrainian billionaire, the richest man in Ukraine had delivered humanitarian supplies to be handed out. We're talking about canned foods, sugar, water, bottled water, even though there is running water and electricity in this town after the fighting. But the city administration says they're going to go ahead with those plans despite the fact that this is now part of what's called New Russia.

SIMON: And is the offensive continuing westward as the Ukrainian government is concerned that it might?

NELSON: Well, there have been reports - I mean, certainly the separatist commander that we spoke to today said that they, in fact, are moving westward. There have been some reports of fighting in a village not far from here. But the large-scale offensive that sort of seemed to be happening earlier in the week has slowed for now.

SIMON: And anything about a Ukrainian fighter jet being shot down? There were some reports this week.

NELSON: Yes, this is the third jet in recent times that has been shot down. And in this case, the Ukrainians claim it was some sort of Russian missile launcher that brought it down. There's been no response from the Russian side. Of course, the Russians deny there are any Russian troops here at all. They say if anyone's here, they're volunteers. And, in fact, the commander that we spoke to - the separatist commander who claims he's from Odessa - says that they have some volunteers, but these are a very tall or short people. A one-eyed sniper was one person that he referred to and said these are not people who would be serving in the Russian military.

SIMON: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, thanks very much for being with us.

NELSON: You're welcome, Scott.

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