BLAHODATNE, Ukraine (AP) — Three days before Ukraine holds a key presidential vote, pro-Russia insurgents attacked a military checkpoint Thursday in eastern Ukraine, killing 13 troops in the deadliest raid yet in weeks of fighting, Ukraine’s leader said.
A rebel group who claimed responsibility for the attack said one of its own was also killed.
The rebels attacked the checkpoint near the town of Volnovakha, firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said
AP journalists saw 11 dead Ukrainian soldiers scattered in a field near the village of Blahodatne, outside Volnovakha, 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of the major city of Donetsk.
Witnesses including a medical worker said over 30 other Ukrainian troops were wounded in the attack and some of them were in grave condition. All the wounded were being treated at nearby medical facilities.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said the attackers hit an ammunition section in one of the vehicles, which exploded in a fireball.
Three charred Ukrainian armored infantry vehicles, their turrets blown away, and several burned trucks stood at the road site in Blahodatne. Scorched bodies, apparently burned by the explosion and fire, were scattered near the vehicles.
Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk blamed Russia for backing the rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which have declared independence from the government in Kiev. He issued a call for an urgent session of the U.N. Security Council.
Thursday’s carnage cast a shadow over Ukraine’s upcoming presidential vote on Sunday, which separatists in the east have pledged to derail. Authorities in Kiev see the vote as a chance to defuse tensions and stabilize the country. Even so, they have admitted it will be impossible to stage the vote in some eastern areas where election officials and voters have faced intimidation and sometimes death threats from the rebels.
Residents said attackers used an armored bank truck, which the unsuspecting Ukrainian soldiers waved through, and then mowed them down at point-blank range. Their account couldn’t be independently confirmed.
In the town of Horlivka, a masked rebel commander claimed responsibility for the raid and showed an array of seized Ukrainian weapons. There was no way to independently confirm his claim.
“We destroyed a checkpoint of the fascist Ukrainian army deployed on the land the Donetsk Republic,” said the commander, who wore a balaclava and identified himself by his nom de guerre, “Bes,” Russian for “demon.” He said one of his men also was killed.
“The weapons you see here have been taken from the dead, they are trophies,” the rebel commander said, showing automatic and sniper rifles, rocket grenade launchers and bulletproof vests in the courtyard of the occupied Horlivka police headquarters.
“People living in western Ukraine: Think about where you are sending your brothers, fathers and sons, and why you need any of this,” he added.
Many in the east resent the government in Kiev, which came to power after a pro-Russian president fled in February following months of protests, seeing it as nationalists bent on repressing Russian-speakers. But many locals also have grown increasingly exasperated with the rebels, whom they blame for putting civilians in the crossfire.