Ukrainian POWs comb ruins of Donetsk airport for dead comrades

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Rebel fighters with Kalashnikovs watched over a dust-covered group of captured Ukrainian soldiers as they searched with their hands through the apocalyptic jumble of smashed concrete and twisted metal that is Donetsk airport.

The task of the 18 captives was a grim one.

They were being made to hunt for the bodies of their fallen comrades, killed in some of the fiercest fighting seen in the 10-month conflict between government forces and pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

Lying under a bullet-ridden sign marked "Arrivals Terminal" were the disembodied legs of a soldier killed in the brutal battle.

On January 23, the once gleaming airport, which received a new, state-of-the-art terminal for the Euro 2012 football championships, fell definitively to the pro-Russian rebels after some eight months of bombardments.

"When we entered, we were battling with automatic weapons," said one of the rebels, who gave his name as Ivan. "Some of our guys who fought in Afghanistan said that this was tougher. We had a lot of dead."

In the wasteland of wreckage that the airport has become nothing has been spared.

On the mortar-scarred tarmac all that remains of a Yakovlev passenger plane from Donbass Airlines is a scrap of fuselage bearing the registration number UR-42381.

- Third floor carnage -

The terminal -- once the pride of the region -- is a gutted concrete shell with luggage trolleys strewn about and the metal benches where passengers once waited torn up by explosions.

On the wall, someone has scrawled in big letters: "We want peace."

The fighting was fiercest on the third floor of the building, where Ukrainian forces held out until the very end.

On Thursday, rebels had to blow up a collapsed wall that was blocking a passageway in order to allow the prisoners continue their search for the dead.

The Ukrainian forces used for the mission by the rebels were wearing a mixture of military camouflage and civilian anoraks.

The had to clamber down into a vast crater as rebels and emergency workers loyal to the insurgents watched from above, barking orders.

"Look over there, there might be something," a rescue worker shouted at a soldier scrambling in the dust, but all he found were more spent ammunition casings.

On Wednesday, the rebels said four bodies had been retrieved from the rubble and that twenty more had yet to be removed.

The work that the Ukrainian soldiers were forced to carry out could be in breach of the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, which stipulates that prisoners must not be forced to do "unhealthy or dangerous" work.

When salvage workers arrived with stretchers and electric saws to cut away at the debris, journalists were asked to leave.

At the exit of the airport the rebels had moved into a gutted apartment block. Their tanks were parked outside and a children's playground had been piled high with ammunition.