Ukraine field troops prepare for assault on Donetsk

Stéphane Orjollet
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Ukrainian government soldiers sit on an armoured vehicle as they take up a position in a sunflower field south of Donetsk on July 10, 2014

Ukrainian government soldiers sit on an armoured vehicle as they take up a position in a sunflower field south of Donetsk on July 10, 2014 (AFP Photo/Dominique Faget)

Olenivka (Ukraine) (AFP) - Among a sea of sunflowers, shirtless Ukranian soldiers shout advice to an earthmover's driver who digs, in a thick cloud of fumes, trenches around their armoured vehicles, on which they are perched in an open field.

The column had arrived unchallenged from the city of Mariupol, in Ukraine's southeast, on Wednesday evening.

The Kiev loyalists are stationed some 20 kilometres (12 miles) to the south of Donetsk, the biggest city in the east of Ukraine, currently held by pro-Russian separatists.

In stifling heat on Thursday morning, the soldiers prepared their positions in the middle of a field, readying for what may be one final push against the rebels.

On one side they are surrounded by sunflowers; on the other is a second unit of infantry, positioned among cornfields.

A little further along is a third unit, flying a weather-battered yellow and blue flag of Ukraine, shielded by anti-aircraft battery, tents and a field kitchen, from which smoke billows.

The young soldiers, looking relaxed, check the papers of passing motorists.

Five hundred metres further back on a dirt track, yet more trucks and armoured vehicles are positioned. Scattered somewhere among the fields are four Grad rocket launchers.

- 'We will be ready' -

Following several phone calls to Kiev, an officer with the "anti-terrorist operation" is finally allowed to speak to AFP reporters present on the ground.

"Yuri" wears a balaclava. His message is predictable but clear. "Our mission is to defend the civilian population in the Donetsk region from terrorists," he says.

As to the exact nature of the mission, Yuri says that depends on the orders the soldiers finally receive. But whether those orders are to attack or encircle the separatists, the men, he says, "will be ready".

There are no precise details of how many Ukrainian troops are stationed in the area around Donetsk. But according to eyewitnesses a column of vehicles up to two kilometres (1.25 miles) long was spotted on Wednesday night.

A group squeezed into an old Lada car returns from a reconnaissance mission. One of the soldiers heads off to relay information.

On the gun turret of his armoured vehicle, a soldier looks out into the distance and scans the northern horizon, where the separatists are located.

The soldiers are beginning a wait they don't know how long will last. "If we fight, we fight," says one matter-of-factly.

Timur, among one of the snipers, says he was initially mobilised for 45 days, just a few months after finally finishing his military service. "It's now been 92 days," he says.

Prior to being in the army Timur worked in computers and says he longs to return to his old life.

But he also insists if there is to be fighting, he will fight "for everyone", even though he hopes for peace.

Just a few kilometres away on the southern outskirts of Donetsk, the separatists are also reinforcing their positions as they prepare for the battles ahead.