Ukraine’s military continued its offensive against pro-Russian separatists in the east on Saturday, one day after dozens were killed in a fire and others were shot dead during clashes in the port city of Odessa.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said operations resumed at dawn on Saturday and that Ukrainian forces had taken a television tower in the town Kramatorsk, south of Slaviansk.
“We are not stopping,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Ukraine’s mostly-Russian speaking east found itself at the centre of the country’s crisis after pro-Russian militants overran the region last month. On Friday, Ukrainian forces launched an assault on the eastern town of Slaviansk in an effort to take it back from separatists, during which two military helicopters were shot down.
OSCE hostages released
A team of European military observers held captive by pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine have been released in the town of Slaviansk, a separatist leader and Russian official said Saturday.
“They have freed all ... (of those) who were on my list," Russia’s Ukraine envoy Vladimir Lukin was quoted as saying by Russia’s RIA news agency.
The release of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) team was confirmed by separatist leader Vyacheslav Ponomarev in comments to the AP news agency.
Insurgents in Slaviansk, at the centre of unrest in eastern Ukraine, seized the observer team on April 25.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
Militants in Slaviansk said that three of their own had been killed in the violence, as well as two civilians. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry reported that two crew members from aboard the downed helicopters had died, and that two other servicemen were killed later in the evening after they were attacked by separatists.
Violence also erupted in Odessa on Friday, where police said three people were shot dead and dozens wounded in running battles between people backing Ukraine’s government in Kiev and pro-Russian separatists. Another man died later and a further 37 people were killed when a trade union building was set on fire as fighting continued into the evening, police said.
Regional police chief Petro Lutsiuk said on Saturday more than 130 people had been detained and could face charges ranging from participating in riots to premeditated murder.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said Ukrainian forces had fired on civilians from the air in Slaviansk in a “punitive operation” that destroyed an international peace plan. Russia has tens of thousands of troops massed on the border, and claims the right to invade the country if needed to protect Russian speakers.
Ukraine’s government said the use of missiles to bring down its helicopters showed Russian forces were in the town and also that Russian “armed saboteurs” had tried to enter the country overnight, but were pushed back by Ukrainian border troops.
Russia denies involvement with the rebels and its security service said the incursion report was untrue.
Ukraine’s government said it was forced to act in eastern Ukraine because Moscow was backing groups there who were “putting civilians in danger, seizing hostages and creating an atmosphere of terror and violence”.
The country’s acting President Oleksander Turchinov later said that the operation had been complicated by the rebels’ use of human shields, and had not progressed as quickly as had been hoped.
The growing chaos in Ukraine has overshadowed plans to hold a presidential election on May 25. Pro-Russian separatists, however, want to hold their own vote on May 11 on whether to break away from Ukraine. Crimea held a similar referendum in March, in which the region voted overwhelming to split from Ukraine. Shortly afterward, it was annexed by Russia.
The United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on individuals over the Ukraine crisis but they have had limited impact. US President Barack Obama said the next step would be sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy and they would be imposed if Moscow impeded the Ukrainian presidential poll.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, visiting Washington, told a joint news conference with Obama that the elections on May 25 were critical and sectoral sanctions were ready.
The energy and banking sectors are likely targets.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-05-03