Donetsk airport battle
Smoke billows from Donetsk international airport during heavy fighting between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces on May 26, 2014. Reuters

The Ukrainian military has lost part of Donetsk airport Wednesday after four days of intense artillery bombardment from advancing pro-Russian fighters, according to reports from the Ukrainian Independent Information Agency (UNIAN), citing Hromadske TV, a Ukrainian television channel. Ukrainian artillery support was able to slow the rebels' advance Tuesday, keeping them within 450 yards of the airport's newest terminal, but fresh bombardment overnight has allowed separatist fighters access to one-third of the terminal where intense fighting has continued.

A soldier of the 80th Airmobile Brigade told the Ukrainian TV channel that two posts in the terminal were destroyed by Russian tanks, while another was purposely blown up by Ukrainian fighters to create a barrier. "The area is lost," the soldier talking to said. "There must be a thorough fight back to secure the positions where the Russians are: the old terminal, the [monastery] and other positions."

Donetsk airport has been the epicenter of fighting in the region, despite a ceasefire being signed in September. On Tuesday the air traffic control tower, a symbol of the fight over the airport, was destroyed prior to the pro-Russian advance overnight, according to UNIAN. The Ukrainian military was able to support soldiers trapped in the airport with artillery fire, but that offered only a brief respite as the rebels attacked from two sides in a flanking maneuver.

As the separatists moved to within 450 yards of the airport Tuesday, the Ukrainian military was offered a 5 p.m. ultimatum to vacate the airport. The deadline came and went as rebels advanced inside the terminal.

The airport is not only a symbol of the war in East Ukraine that has raged for over nine months but also a site of major tactical significance. Ariel Cohen, director of the Center for Energy, National Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, said in a phone interview that Russia, which has been accused by NATO and Western nations of supporting pro-Russian rebels, could “fly fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters out of that airport, and that would increase the air support for the rebel forces.”

Cohen also said, however, that Russia would likely claim to be flying humanitarian aid in and out of the country “because they will never acknowledge that they are flying military personnel or matériel.”

According to the solider interviewed by Ukrainian TV, the unit occupying the airport has not been given orders to retake lost positions.