Ukraine crisis: Donetsk rebels retain appetite for war

Rebel base in Donetsk. 3 Oct 2014
Image caption Pro-Russia rebels in Donetsk say they are winning against Ukrainian forces

I wasn't sure what I had imagined a rebel base would look like, but it wasn't this - the entrance to an unprepossessing apartment block in a densely populated residential area on the edge of Donetsk.

As women lugged shopping bags, and dogs prowled hungrily through the courtyard, a group of heavily armed men - and some women - in green and black camouflage outfits stood around, smoking and chatting.

They were fighters from the Oplot battalion, which was formed and is still headed by the "prime minister" of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic - Alexander Zakharchenko.

After they had checked our documents and made us wait for the end of a "military council" meeting, we were invited inside and offered sweets by one of the guards on the door.

Passing piles of sand bags and a row of gas masks, we were ushered into the strategy room, where a man with a grey ponytail and a burgundy beret was tapping on a computer, pipe in hand.

A large table dominated the room. On it, a series of maps was spread out, showing rebel-held territory. An X marked the spot where, they assured us, a Ukrainian helicopter had been shot down in the past few weeks.

These rebels were of varying ages, but they insisted they were local.

Image caption Equipment inside the rebel base included gas masks

To a man, they were confident that they were in the ascendancy in the fight against Ukrainian forces, that the area they controlled would only grow. And despite a ceasefire agreement, they haven't lost the appetite for war.

One of them - a young commander with a green headband - jokingly cocked and fired his empty pistol as he chatted.

Their reality - and the fighting at Donetsk airport - seems a world way from the negotiations and prisoner swaps that are meant to be taking place under the terms of a ceasefire agreed in Minsk by the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian leadership last month.

According to a senior member of that leadership - the deputy prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic Andrei Purgin - that process is being observed and mediated by both Ukrainian and Russian military officers.

The Russians - he was at pains to underline - are a neutral party to the process.

But their official presence on Ukrainian territory - something the Russian government has not actually confirmed - will be seen as a symbolic step for the Kremlin as it seeks to cement its control over a region which, it insists, is key to its security.

Image caption Rebel leader Andrei Purgin says Russians are playing a neutral role

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