Ukrainian troops killed in battles with Slaviansk separatists
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Four Ukrainian troops were killed and 30 more were wounded in intense fighting around Slaviansk on Monday as the army fought pitched battles with the pro-Russia militias that have seized control of the town, the interior ministry said.
The defence ministry said an Mi-24 helicopter gunship was brought down near Slaviansk by heavy machinegun fire but that the pilots survived.
The government has also dispatched an elite national guard unit to re-establish control in the restive southern port city of Odessa, where hundreds of pro-Russian activists stormed a police station a day earlier and secured the release of 67 of their separatist comrades who were detained after Friday's clashes.
Monday’s offensive in the two restive cities appeared to be the latest effort to bring areas of eastern Ukraine back under central control amid a simmering separatist movement in the east. Kiev launched a first serious offensive to retake Slaviansk last Friday.
Associated Press reporters heard gunfire and multiple explosions in and around Slaviansk, a city of 125,000 people that has become the focus of an armed pro-Moscow insurgency against the new pro-EU interim government in Kiev.
Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced on the ministry’s website that pro-Russia forces were deploying large-calibre weapons and mortars in the region. He said government troops were facing about 800 insurgents and that there had been injuries on both sides.
A pro-Russian militia spokesman in Slaviansk said an unspecified number of people had been killed or wounded in the clashes, including a 20-year-old woman who was killed by a stray bullet.
Ukraine at a crossroads
Ukraine has found itself at a geopolitical crossroads as it debates whether to pursue closer economic ties with the European Union – as many in its western regions wish – or maintain its traditional close alliance with Russia, a path favoured by many in the largely Russian-speaking east.
The goal of the pro-Russian insurgency is ostensibly broader regional autonomy, but some insurgents do favour secession from Ukraine and becoming part of the Russian Federation.
Over the past few weeks anti-government forces have seized government buildings and police stations in 16 eastern Ukrainian towns and cities. The authorities in Kiev – who claim that Russia is backing the insurgents with troops and military hardware – have been largely powerless to respond amid popular support for the pro-Russia movement.
Western powers including the United States have also accused the Kremlin of direct involvement in the separatist movement in east Ukraine, a charge Moscow has repeatedly denied.
Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Ukraine after annexing the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea last month amid an international outcry, prompting fears in Kiev that Moscow plans to seize more Ukrainian territory.
Russia says its troops have a “right” to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in the east from what it says are Ukrainian “ultra-nationalists”.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)