An Ukrainian soldier aims his weapon at pro-Russia protesters gathered in front of an Ukrainian airbase in Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine, April 15, 2014.
Marko Djurica—Reuters
April 15, 2014 5:49 AM EDT

Updated: 11.50am

Ukrainian officials claimed to have recaptured a key airfield in eastern Ukraine after trading fire with pro-Russia militants Tuesday, hours after launching a military operation in the northern Donetsk region to regain control of eastern sites that have been taken over by armed protestors and militants.

Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said the airbase at Kramatorsk had been “liberated” from “terrorists,” the BBC reports. Turchynov earlier announced to parliament that the military had begun an “antiterrorist operation.”

“It will be phased, responsible and balanced,” he said, according to Russian news agency Interfax. “The purpose of the actions, I stress once again, is to protect the citizens of Ukraine.”

The separatists have ignored several ultimatums to surrender from the Ukrainian government, which has to play a delicate game. A full armed crackdown could prompt the invasion of Russian troops, which are gathered along the border in their tens of thousands, and greatly outnumber Ukraine’s forces.

Speaking on Tuesday from Beijing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slammed an armed resolution to the crisis as “unacceptable.” He added that claims of Russian involvement were “the biggest load of nonsense I have ever heard.”

Ukraine has increasingly lost grip of the situation in the east, where thousands of officials have gone over to separatist forces. Defying the latest ultimatum on Monday, occupiers in Donetsk, who have declared an independent republic, vowed to take control of the rest of the province.

In a statement on his Facebook page, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said Ukraine was “on the brink of civil war.”

On Tuesday, a U.N. human-rights report was released on the crisis, citing the urgent need to counter “misinformation, propaganda and incitement to hatred” in order to avoid further escalation.

Meanwhile, foreign ministers of the European Union decided Monday to freeze the assets of more Russian officials and prominent citizens, and extend visa bans.

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