17 Feb 2015

Donetsk airport, Ukraine’s ruined showpiece – in pictures

It was a showpiece for the city – the brand-new airport where England’s football team landed for the Euro championships three years ago. Now Donetsk airport and much of the wider region lie in ruins.

Our chief correspondent Alex Thomson was one of a small number of journalists escorted by rebel forces to the site to see the devastation at first hand.

Warning: the article below contains images that viewers may find distressing

Having suffered in the fighting between the two sides for eight months, what was once Ukraine’s most modern airport is now just ruined terminal buildings and aircraft wreckage littered with shell casings and debris.

After a bomb exploded near a building on 16 February, an official with the local armed forces blamed the Ukrainian government forces for violating the truce first.

As a major transportation hub, the airport has witnessed continuous fierce battles as Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels fought for control of the strategically important location. The ceasefire between government troops and seperatist-rebels was violated several times during the day.

Alex Thomson, who tweeted these pictures from the airport, said: “There’s no doubt that Donetsk airport is one of the most fiercely contested pieces of turf itself outside the enclave of Debaltseve.

“Quite simply, the rebels say this is not part of the peace agreement. It’s ours, we’re going to take it, no matter what. Ukrainians say no, it’s absolutely part of Minsk, and our forces are not moving.”

Alex Thomson and cameraman Stuart Webb were taken to see what remains of the Donetsk airport.

In his report on 16 February, Alex Thomson described the scenes from the airport: “Come to the airport, said the rebels. There’s something you will want to see.

“A propaganda machine with a message. Ukrainians are still shelling the airport and are still breaking the ceasefire.

“Smoke from the building behind us alright, but incoming Ukrainian shelling or a propaganda blast by rebels to fool the media?”

The team were shown the ruins of the airport, including the departure lounge, the airport hotel, the landscaped trees outside what was once the arrivals louge, and the wreckage of a plane.

At the airport, Donetsk People’s Republic’s Deputy Defence Minister Eduard Basurin told Channel 4 News: “Well, we always say we are ready for this current ceasefire. We only return fire if civilians or our army are threatened. If it’s just provocation, we won’t return fire.”

The Channel 4 News team were later moved to the main terminal building at Donetsk.

In his blog, Alex Thomson described seeing two dead bodies: “On we walked past the burned-up tail planes of jets on the tarmac. Past the gutted and pock-marked airport hotel. The shell-splashed hangars with torn metal cladding screaming and clanking eerily in the biting wind and snow showers.

“There were distant shell bursts and not so distant shell bursts. Then, an explosion in the skeletal ruin of the airport hotel just as the media happened to troop past.

“On it went to the bodies. I saw six. Two by a burned out fighting vehicle with several live shells strewn about them and their hands tied with white electric cable.

“They, like the other four some distance away, had been there, frozen, for a considerable period of time. The rebels said they were Ukrainian soldiers. The group of four did not appear to have hands tied.”

“Instantly my photos of the tied hands have been seized upon by online-propagandists as ‘evidence’ of cold-blooded execution.

“Let us be clear. Two frozen bodies with hands tied are evidence that two frozen bodies have hands tied. That’s about where the ‘evidence’ ends.”