KIEV/DONETSK, Ukraine: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko vowed to “find and destroy” pro-Russian rebels who killed 23 servicemen and wounded nearly 100 in a missile attack Friday.
Poroshenko issued his angry statement following an emergency meeting of his security chiefs called in response to the early-morning Russian-made Grad missile strike on an army motorized brigade near the border with Russia.
The attack, which came as government forces seemed to be prevailing in the three-month conflict, appeared to be the deadliest on government troops since the Ukrainian military ended a unilateral cease-fire on June 30.
“All those who used the Grad against the Armed Forces of Ukraine will be found and destroyed,” Poroshenko said in a statement on his website.
“For every soldier’s life, the militants will pay with scores and hundreds of their own. Not a single terrorist will avoid responsibility; each will get what they deserve,” he said.
The pro-Russian separatists launched a volley of Grad missiles at 4:30 a.m. on the border post at Zelenopillya, in Ukraine’s easternmost Luhansk region, military sources said.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said 19 servicemen were killed and the border guard service said four of its number also died. Military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said on his Facebook page that 93 were injured in the Grad attack.
Authorities had earlier put the death toll at up to 30 but this was later scaled down to 23.
Kiev blames Moscow for fanning the violence and allowing fighters and high-powered weaponry to cross the frontier from Russia to Ukraine.
The attack was a major setback for the government, which scored a notable victory last weekend by pushing rebels out of their stronghold in Slaviansk and forcing them back to the city of Donetsk, where they have dug in.
Separatists have been battling government forces for three months since they set up “people’s republics” in the Russian-speaking east of the country and said they want to join Russia.
Poroshenko’s government has threatened a “nasty surprise” to drive rebels out of Donetsk, the region’s industrial hub with a population of 900,000, while pledging to limit civilian casualties.
In Donetsk’s main railway station, people said they had been waiting in line for two hours to buy tickets to flee the city, which they feared would suffer the same destruction as Slaviansk did during fighting.
Separatist leader Alexander Borodai told journalists Thursday that 70,000 residents had already left the city.
“We decided yesterday to leave the city and immediately got ready,” said Nadezhda Avramenko, 55, a housewife sitting on the train platform with her family.
Standing in line for tickets, Irina, 55, a kindergarten teacher, said she was leaving with her family
“We’re going to Crimea. We’ll return if the Donetsk People’s Republic holds out and if the monstrous Ukrainians come, then there will be no return. How can you live with them if they’re killing people.”
Elsewhere in the Luhansk region, four servicemen died when their armored personnel vehicle detonated a mine, a military spokesman said Friday, while another soldier was killed in the town of Karlovka in Donetsk province.