Ukrainian forces launched a large-scale military operation that included an air assault early Friday to retake the eastern town of Slaviansk, pro-Russian separatists who have seized the town said.
"Sirens were set off in the early hours of this morning to warn the local population that an attack was imminent," said FRANCE 24's Gulliver Cragg, reporting from Kharkiv in east Ukraine.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov confirmed reports that a helicopter had been shot down and that a pilot had been killed.
Separatists rebels earlier said that at least one helicopter had been brought down. Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-declared mayor of Slaviansk, told Russia’s Interfax news agency that two helicopters had been downed and that one pilot had been detained while another had been killed.
A spokesman for the military wing of the pro-Russian forces, who gave his name only as Vladislav, told AP that fighting had broken out at several points around the city. He said government armoured vehicles were seen on roads leading into Sloviansk and said Ukrainian troops had made incursions into the rebel-held city itself.
The Ukrainian offensive in Slaviansk marks Kiev's largest military response yet to the seizure of administrative buildings in several eastern Ukrainian cities.
However, an aide to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said he could not comment on the operation.
“Until it’s over, no one will say anything,” the aide said.
FRANCE 24's Cragg emphasised that most of the information available early on Friday was coming from separatist rebels and the Russian media, which favour the separatist movement.
On Wednesday, Ukraine’s leaders – who came to power in February after the previous Moscow-backed president was toppled following months of protests – conceded that authorities were “helpless” to counter the seizure of government buildings and police stations in the Donbass coal and steel belt, the origin of around one-third of Ukraine’s industrial output.
Separatists stormed the prosecutor’s office in the city of Donetsk also on Wednesday, throwing rocks, firecrackers and teargas at the riot police defending Ukrainian officials, whom the rebels accused of working for the Western-backed government in Kiev.
Rebels in the city, the capital of a province of about 4 million people, last month declared a “People’s Republic of Donetsk” and called a referendum on secession for May 11 – ahead of a nationwide presidential election to be held two weeks later.
Citing the increasingly violent situation in the east, acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov signed a decree Thursday reinstating compulsory military service for men aged between 18 and 25.
The International Monetary Fund has warned that if Ukraine loses territory in the east it would have to reconfigure a planned $17 billion bailout for the country.
The Kiev government and its Western allies, including the United States, accuse Moscow of orchestrating the uprising in the east. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its spurring the unrest in eastern Ukraine.
Russia denies taking any part in the rebellion, but has warned that it has the right to intervene to protect the region’s ethnic Russians and has massed tens of thousands of troops on its western frontier with Ukraine.
The UN, however, says that there has been no credible evidence that the region’s Russians are under threat.
Kiev ordered the expulsion of Russia’s military attaché on Thursday, saying it had caught him “red-handed” receiving classified information on the country’s cooperation with NATO from a colonel in Ukraine’s armed forces.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AP)
Date created : 2014-05-02