Friday, May 2, 2014

Ukraine crisis: Sloviansk rebels down army helicopters

Sarah Rainsford in Donetsk says the scale of clashes on the ground is not yet clear
Pro-Russian rebels have shot down two of Ukraine's army helicopters during an "anti-terror" operation in the eastern city of Sloviansk, Kiev has said.

It said a pilot and serviceman had been killed, four suspected separatists held and 10 rebel checkpoints seized.

Half of the city was later declared "under control" of the Ukrainian units.

There has been no independent confirmation of the claim. Separatists at three checkpoints earlier told the BBC they were still in control there.

Russia said the use of the army by Kiev against its own people was "leading Ukraine to catastrophe".

At the scene

I am standing at a bridge where there is a stand-off going on between the Ukrainian armed forces and a large group of pro-Russian locals.

I can see about 300 people waving Russian flags, singing and chanting - as if they are daring the military to go closer.

A heavy downpour of rain and a lightning storm have pushed people back a little bit. But it is a very tense situation here.

At the moment the troops are standing around in the field and the protesters are keeping to their part of the bridge. It is difficult tell in which direction this will go. The atmosphere in a place like this can change very quickly.

Describing the military operation as "punitive", the Russian foreign ministry also urged Western powers to give up their "destructive" policy on Ukraine. 

Sloviansk is a stronghold for pro-Russian separatists who are exerting increasing control in the region.

In other developments:
  • Unknown attackers have seized a local railway control centre near Donetsk, disrupting train movement
  • Moscow has reportedly re-established contact with Russian envoy Vladimir Lukin in eastern Ukraine, after saying earlier it had been unable to get in touch with him
  • Pro-Russian rebels have left the prosecutor's office and TV centre in the eastern Luhansk region
  • Several Western journalists were detained in Sloviansk, but all are now believed to be free
'Full combat alert' Ukraine's anti-terror centre said in a statement that "half of the city" was under control of its units at 12:00 local time (10:00 GMT).
A Ukrainian solider stands near a destroyed rebel checkpoint near Sloviansk. Photo: 2 May 2014 Ukrainian government troops reportedly seized 10 rebel checkpoints
A Ukrainian military helicopter flies near Sloviansk. Photo: 2 May 2014 Military helicopters were involved in the "anti-terror" operations
Pro-Russian militants guard a checkpoint near Sloviansk. Photo: 2 May 2014 The rebels claimed they were still in control of some of their checkpoints
It said pro-Russian gunmen were using snipers and also mobile units dressed in riot police uniforms.

Meanwhile, the commander of Ukraine's National Guard said his units "practically cleared Sloviansk from terrorists".

Earlier, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the "active phase" of the operation in the Sloviansk-Kramatorsk region began at 04:30 local time.

"A real battle with professional mercenaries is going on," Mr Avakov said, adding that the separatists were using the tactics of hiding behind civilians in residential buildings.
Russia's state-run Rossiya 24 TV channel said the city was being "stormed".
It quoted Sloviansk's rebel commander Igor Strelkov as saying that the city was completely sealed off.

The fighting appeared to be concentrating on the periphery of the city, says the BBC's Sarah Rainsford, who is in the regional capital Donetsk.

In a video posted on YouTube, Sloviansk's self-declared mayor Vyacheslav Ponomaryov said "our city is under attack".

He appealed to children, women and the elderly not to leave their homes.
Local residents were later quoted as saying that the situation in the city had calmed down but remained tense.

Monitors held Ukraine's acting president has said his forces are "helpless" in some parts of the east, and the country is now on full combat alert amid fears that Russian troops could invade.
Some 40,000 Russian troops are stationed near the Ukrainian border.

Eastern Ukraine has a large Russian-speaking population. It was a stronghold for President Viktor Yanukovych before he was overthrown by pro-Western protesters in February.
Moscow says it reserves the right to use "all means" to protect its citizens in eastern Ukraine
Russia then annexed the Crimean peninsula - part of Ukraine but with a Russian-speaking majority - in a move that provoked international outrage.

The crisis has plunged East-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War ended in the early 1990s.

On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Russia in a phone call to President Putin to help free foreign military monitors seized by rebels in Sloviansk last week.

For his part, Mr Putin reiterated his call for Kiev to withdraw troops from the south-east to open the way for a national dialogue.
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