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Europe

Pro-Russian rebels down army helicopters in Slaviansk offensive

© AFP

Video by Gulliver CRAGG

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-05-02

Pro-Russia rebels on Friday shot down two Ukrainian military helicopters, killing two crew members, while Kiev reported “many" militants dead in its first major offensive against the growing separatist insurgency in the east.

Fighting broke out around dawn near Slaviansk, a city 160 kilometres from the Russian border which has become the hotbed of the armed insurgency against Ukraine’s interim government.

Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchinov said that two soldiers died in the crashes and that “many" were killed in the clashes that followed.

According to the Ukrainian Security Service, one of the downed helicopters was hit by a surface-to-air missile, suggesting that the use of such a sophisticated weapon is undercutting Russia’s claims that the city is simply under the control of armed locals. The service said its forces were fighting “highly skilled foreign military men” in Slaviansk.

Slaviansk’s self-appointed rebel mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, issued a video message on a local website, urging women and children to stay indoors, and for "all armed men to help" combat the assault.

"We will defend the town and we will win," the mayor said, dressed in camouflage uniform and wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet.

As Kiev on Friday vowed to continue with its assault against the militants, the interior ministry said the violence had spread to the southern port city of Odessa where separatists clashed with hundreds of residents rallying for national unity.

Four people were killed in the fighting that broke out and a trade union building located in the city centre was set ablaze.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said Ukraine’s offensive against the separatists “effectively destroyed the last hope for the implementation of the Geneva agreements” that aimed to defuse the crisis. A day earlier Putin had warned Ukraine not to move against the insurgents and said it should withdraw its military from eastern and southern regions.

Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, is deeply divided between those in the west who favor closer ties with Europe and many Russian-speakers in the east who look toward Moscow. Ukraine has accused Russia of backing the insurgents who have seized government buildings in 10 eastern cities and fears that Moscow is seeking a pretext to invade; Russia has already stationed tens of thousands of troops in areas near the Ukrainian border.

Russian troops backed separatists in Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March, then annexed the region after a referendum called for secession.

Kiev ‘loses control’ of the east

Last month’s deal in Geneva aimed to get those who had seized Ukrainian government buildings to leave and calm down the tensions that have prompted the United States and the European Union to slap Russia with rounds of sanctions.

Earlier this week, Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchinov admitted that the central government had lost control of the east, and said that some government troops and police there were “either helping or cooperating with terrorist organizations”. He said Ukraine should focus on preventing the instability from spreading to other parts of the country and on Friday he issued a decree to bring back military conscription with immediate effect.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin had sent envoy Vladimir Lukin to Ukraine’s southeast to negotiate the release of seven foreign military observers who are among numerous people being held hostage by pro-Russia militia in Slaviansk.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement that troops had met fierce resistance during the offensive on Friday morning but that they had managed to take control of nine checkpoints on the roads around Slaviansk. He called on the insurgents to lay down their arms and release their hostages.

“We are ready to negotiate with protesters and their representatives,” he said. “But for terrorists and armed separatists, there is only punishment.”

By late afternoon, the Ukrainian Security Service said half of Slaviansk was under the control of the Ukrainian army, but journalists reporting from the scene said that the centre of the city still appeared to be in the hands of pro-Russian gunmen.

Television crews from Sky News and CBS were detained Friday on the outskirts of Slaviansk. Sky News said in a statement its staff were detained for several hours but was now “safe and well”.

CBS correspondent Clarissa Ward told “CBS News This Morning” that she and her crew were stopped by pro-Russia insurgents at a checkpoint just outside Slaviansk, then taken to a nearby town where they were blindfolded tightly with masking tape. They were released several hours later, unharmed except for one man who was beaten.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)
 

Date created : 2014-05-02

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