Convoy's obliteration evidence of Russia's hand in turning tide of war

By Roland Oliphant

Pro-Russian rebels pass destroyed Ukrainian military vehicles near Novokaterynivka, eastern Ukraine. Photo / AP
Pro-Russian rebels pass destroyed Ukrainian military vehicles near Novokaterynivka, eastern Ukraine. Photo / AP

Half a dozen bodies, burned and contorted, were all that was left of the crews of the charred armoured personnel carriers.

They were driving west when they were hit. The shells came from behind with devastating accuracy.

What must have appeared a powerful Ukrainian armoured convoy of 15 vehicles came under fire as it rumbled down the country lane.

EU warns Ukraine crisis near 'point of no return'

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The tank was blown in two. The lorries were barely recognisable. It was a chilling demonstration of the devastating power of artillery, the decisive weapon in this war. And, as if it were needed, a picture of the dramatic reversal of fortunes in an increasingly bitter conflict.

Just weeks ago, the Ukrainians appeared to be winning in the east of their country. With more men, artillery and air power, they systematically pushed the pro-Russian separatists into an ever-shrinking patch of territory around their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Without military intervention from Russia, the popular wisdom went, the rebels faced certain defeat.

With Vladimir Putin apparently reluctant to commit ground troops in this proxy war, Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian President, launched offensives to encircle Donetsk and Luhansk.

But in the past couple of weeks, Russian help appears to have arrived. The results have been disastrous for the Ukrainians.

In a series of counter-offensives on all fronts, the rebels - backed, Kiev and Western officials say, by Russian artillery, armour and regular troops - have reversed the Ukrainian advance, seized their first outlet to the sea and inflicted a humiliating defeat on the pro-Kiev volunteer battalions.

In the east, they have retaken the strategic airport near Luhansk, which the Ukrainians had held for months.

Also in the east, they have broken an encirclement of Donetsk and taken hundreds of prisoners after trapping a large body of Ukrainian troops in the town of Ilovaisk, 30km southeast of the city.

Further south, they have opened a new front, seizing the coastal town of Novoazovsk in an apparent preparation for an assault on Mariupol, the region's most important port.

Witnesses confirmed that separatist forces had taken Olenivka, a town on the highway from Donetsk to Mariupol, and appear to be pushing south - setting the scene for a two-pronged assault on the port town.

In the no man's land between the advancing and retreating armies, the evidence of a panicked flight can be found everywhere.

The wrecked convoy near the town of Komsomolskoye was hit last week just as the separatist counter-offensive reached its turning point.

The column was heading in the direction of Ukrainian-controlled territory when it was hit, and impact craters and the remains of rockets still half-buried in the ground suggested the firing came from the east. Whoever fired the mortars and rockets that struck the convoy did so with impressive accuracy.

A kilometre from the burned-out column, an undamaged armoured personnel carrier stood abandoned by its crew after it ran out of fuel. They left body armour, maps, their toothbrushes, and ammunition in their haste to get away.

Locals, said the one policeman left in town, quickly scavenged the ammunition.

In the centre of Komsomolskoye, retreating Ukrainian troops did their best to destroy the army recruitment office and abandoned another APC after its engine failed when they pulled out of town on Saturday. Locals showed off rockets, grenades, and high-calibre ammunition the Ukrainians had left behind.

That, along with more weaponry which was gathered from the wreckage of the convoy, would be handed over to fighters from the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, one man said - partly out of personal loyalty, and partly out of practicality. "Who else are we going to give it to?" he asked.

That may have something to do with the experience of living under occupation.

"They [the Ukrainians] didn't defend us, they just stole from us," he said.

"They showed up, said they were going to blockade the town, and took over the police station for their HQ.

"When we complained we'd get shelled because of this they said that was none of our business. After this my doubts are gone. We're just waiting for the DNR to get here."

Key developments

An attack on fleeing Ukrainian troops on Monday left military vehicles in charred piles and dozens reportedly dead, following an ambush by Russian-backed separatist forces. Estimates on the death toll ranged from more than 100 to dozens. AP reporters saw at least 11 bodies over a two-day period.

Vladimir Putin's foreign policy adviser said leaked remarks the Russian President made were "taken out of context and carried a completely different meaning". A report on Tuesday had revealed European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Putin told him that Russia could take over Kiev "in two weeks" if it wished.

US President Barack Obama will make a symbolic show of Western support today for the Baltic countries in Estonia, before he heads to a Nato summit in Wales. The conference seeks to create a rapid-response military team to counter the Russian threat.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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