Ukrainian general killed as rebels down military helicopter
SLOVYANSK, UKRAINE // Rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down a government military helicopter on Thursday, killing at least 12 soldiers including a general, officials said.
Acting president Oleksandr Turchynov told the parliament in Kiev that rebels used a portable air defence missile to bring down the helicopter amid heavy fighting around Slovyansk.
He said 14 died, including General Serhiy Kulchytskiy, according to the Interfax news agency.
But Ukraine’s National Guards put the death toll at 12, including Gen Kulchytskiy and said one soldier was badly wounded, but the information is still being verified.
Slovyansk, a city of 120,000 residents 160 kilometres from the Russian border, has become the epicentre of fighting between pro-Russia insurgents and government forces in recent weeks.
It is in the Donetsk region, one of the two provinces in eastern Ukraine that have declared independence from the government in Kiev.
Its residential areas regularly come under mortar shelling from government forces, causing civilian casualties and prompting some residents to flee.
Witnesses saw the helicopter go down amid a trail of black smoke. Gunshots were heard in Slovyansk near the crash site and a Ukrainian air force jet was seen circling above.
Mr Turchynov said the helicopter was flying troops to a hill outside Slovyansk where Ukrainian forces have set up positions.
The Kiev government condemns the insurgency roiling the east as the work of “terrorists” bent on destroying the country and accuses Russia of fomenting it. Russia denies the accusations, saying it has no influence over rebels, who insist they are only protecting the interests of Russian-speakers in the east.
Still, fighters from Russia have been appearing recently in the ranks of the separatists.
Also on Thursday, an insurgent leader confirmed that his fighters were holding four missing observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and promised they would be released shortly. Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk, said that the monitors were safe.
“I addressed the OSCE mission to warn them that their people should not over the coming week travel in areas under our control. And they decided to show up anyway,” Mr Ponomarev said.
“We will deal with this and then release them,” he said, without setting a specific timeframe.
The OSCE lost contact with the team in Donetsk on Monday evening. Their teams have been deployed to Ukraine to monitor the security situation following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the rise of the pro-Russia separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. They also observed Sunday’s presidential vote, won by billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko.
* Associated Press
Published: May 29, 2014 04:00 AM