Two Ukrainian helicopters shot down in offensive against rebels

Kiev reports several deaths on both sides after launching dawn military operation to retake eastern city of Sloviansk from pro-Russian forces.

A pro-Russian activist hurls a rock at supporters of Ukraine’s government during clashes in the streets of Odessa on May 2, 2014. Yevgeny Volokin / Reuters
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SLOViANSK, Ukraine // Pro-Russia rebels shot down two Ukrainian helicopters on Friday and Ukraine reported many militants killed or wounded in the interim government’s first major offensive against an insurgency in the east.

The Kremlin said Kiev’s military move against the insurgents “destroyed” the two-week-old Geneva agreement on cooling Ukraine’s crisis and called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council to discuss the offensive.

In Washington, speaking after a meeting with the German chancellor Angela Merkel, the US President Barack Obama said it was obvious to everyone now that the pro-Russia militants were not peaceful protesters. Both leaders warned tougher and broader new sanctions against Russia if Moscow did not act quickly to ease tensions in its neighbour.

Fighting broke out around dawn near Sloviansk, a city 160 kilometres from the Russian border that has become the focus of the armed insurgency. Two helicopter crew members were killed in the crashes, both sides said, and the insurgents reported one member killed.

Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov said later that two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and seven wounded in the clashes and the insurgents suffered significant losses, including many killed or injured. It was not clear if the two referred to the helicopter crew.

“Our security forces are fighting mercenaries of foreign states, terrorists and criminals,” he said in a statement

By early evening, Mr Turchynov said the army controlled all of the checkpoints around Slovyansk, a city of 125,000 people.

One of the helicopters was hit by a surface-to-air missile, the Ukrainian Security Service said, calling it a sophisticated weapon that undercut Russia’s claims the city was simply under the control of armed locals. The agency said its forces were fighting “highly skilled foreign military men” in Sloviansk.

The Russian state television channel Rossia 24 showed one man they said was a wounded helicopter pilot reportedly being helped by pro-Russia forces.

Central Sloviansk still remained in the hands of pro-Russia gunmen. Several foreign news crews trying to cover the fighting were detained for several hours before being released.

A clash also broke out late on Friday between pro-Russians and government supporters in Odessa, a Black Sea coast port some 550km from the turmoil in the east.

Police said three people died and several others were wounded when pro-Russia activists attacked a march through the city in support of Ukrainian unity. Until now, Odessa had remained largely untroubled since the February toppling of the pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych, which ignited tensions in the east.

Mr Turchynov admitted earlier this week that the central government had lost control of the east, and said some government troops and police there were “either helping or cooperating with terrorist organizations.”

He said Ukrainian forces were working to prevent the unrest from spreading to central areas like Odessa.

In Moscow, the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said the Ukrainian offensive “effectively destroyed the last hope for the implementation of the Geneva agreements” that aimed to defuse the crisis. But Dmitry Peskov said Russia “continues to undertake consistent efforts on de-escalation”.

Mr Peskov said the Kremlin had sent an envoy to negotiate the release of seven foreign military observers who are among those being held hostage by pro-Russia militia in Sloviansk.

Mr Putin had warned Ukraine not to move against the insurgents and said it should withdraw its military from the volatile 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 insurgents who have seized government buildings in at least 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 then annexed the region in March after a referendum called for secession.

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

Russia’s foreign ministry accused Ukraine’s fledging government of using “terrorists” from ultranationalist organisations for Friday’s military operation. It also claimed that Kiev deployed tanks and helicopters that were “conducting missile strikes on protesters”, something that neither side in Ukraine reported.

Russia also cited insurgents in Ukraine as saying that some of the government attackers spoke English – an insinuation that the Ukrainian military was getting some help from the West.

Ukrainian troops met fierce resistance on Friday morning but managed to take control of nine checkpoints on the roads around Sloviansk, the interior minister Arsen Avakov said. He called on the insurgents to lay down their arms and release their hostages.

A spokesman for the pro-Russia forces said fighting had broken out at several points around Slovyansk and said Ukrainian troops had made incursions into the city itself.

* Associated Press