A fresh round of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels broke out in eastern Ukraine Monday, knocking hopes that an offer of talks from the president-elect in Kiev and Moscow's encouraging response may bring about a timely end to the crisis.
Fresh from a victory at the polls on Sunday, Ukraine's incoming president, Petro Poroshenko, said he was willing to open dialogue with Moscow, an overture that Russia welcomed. The exchange raised optimism that the protracted standoff, which has seen East-West relations plummet to levels unseen since the end of the Cold War, could be easing.
But on the ground, violence continued. On Monday, Ukraine's military launched air strikes against pro-Russian groups that had taken over an airport in the eastern regional capital of Donetsk in what appeared to be the most visible operation of pro-Kiev troops since they started a crackdown on insurgents last month.
Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for Kiev's so-called anti-terrorist operation, wrote on his Facebook account that the military gave an ultimatum to the armed men occupying the airport to lay down their arms. He said the gunmen didn't comply and the military launched an assault
Denis Pushilin, a leader of the separatists, said they sent their men to the airport after some of their supporters were detained.
The fighting came as international observers hailed Sunday’s presidential vote as a genuine election, saying it was held freely and fairly.
The ballot’s result has yet to be finalized, but it is set to give candy magnate Poroshenko a strong mandate.
Known for his pragmatism, Poroshenko supports building strong ties with Europe but has also stressed the importance of mending relations with Moscow.
Upon claiming victory in Sunday's vote, he said his first step as president would be to visit the Donbas eastern industrial region, where pro-Russian groups have seized government buildings, declared independence and battled government troops in weeks of fighting.
"Peace in the country and peace in the east is my main priority," Poroshenko said Monday, signaling that he would bring to an end the Ukrainian army's much-criticized campaign to drive out the armed pro-Russian separatists.
The tycoon looked decidedly cool and composed Sunday night when exit poll results were announced. On Monday he became emotional when he was asked about the crisis in the east.
"The anti-terrorist operation cannot and should not last two or three months," he said. "It should and will last hours."
The military operation has caused civilian deaths and destroyed property — angering many eastern residents — while failing to crush the rebellion.
The president-elect also had harsh words for the pro-Russian gunmen, comparing them to Somalian pirates.
"Their goal is to turn Donbas into a Somalia, where they would rule with the power of machine guns. I will never allow that to happen on the territory of Ukraine," Poroshenko said, adding that he hoped Russia would support his efforts to stabilize the east.
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia appreciated Poroshenko's statements about the importance of Ukraine's ties with Russia and his pledge to negotiate an end to fighting in the east.
"We are ready for dialogue with representatives of Kiev, with Petro Poroshenko," Lavrov said at a briefing, adding it was a chance that "cannot be wasted." He emphasized that Moscow saw no need for any involvement by the United States or the European Union in those talks.
Lavrov also noted Russia's longstanding call for the Kiev government to end its military operation in eastern Ukraine.
The rebels had vowed to block Sunday's voting in the east. Fewer than 20 percent of the polling stations were open there after gunmen intimidated residents by smashing ballot boxes, shutting down polling centers and issuing threats.
But nationwide, about 60 percent of Ukraine's 35.5 million eligible voters turned out Sunday, and long lines snaked around polling stations in the pro-Western capital, Kiev.
"Ukrainian authorities should be commended for their efforts in the extraordinary circumstances to facilitate an election," particularly in the volatile east, said Joao Soares, special coordinator for the Organization for Security and Cooperation's observer mission in Kiev.
With votes from 75 percent of the precincts counted Monday, Poroshenko was leading with about 54 percent in the field of 21 candidates. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was running a distant second with 13 percent. If Poroshenko wins more than 50 percent in the final tally, he will avoid a runoff election next month. Official results are supposed to be announced by June 5.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press