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Rebels shoot at Ukrainian helicopters

Pro-Russian rebels shot down two Ukrainian helicopters trying to retake separatist-held Slaviansk, while police say a building fire in Odessa killed 38 people.

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More than 40 people were killed in Odessa on Friday, most caught in a building set on fire after pro-Russian activists and supporters of Ukrainian unity fought running battles across the southern port city.

In the worst violence in the Black Sea port since President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in February, police said 38 people had choked to death on smoke or were killed when jumping out of windows after the trade union building was set on fire.

Deadly assault ... A protester throws a petrol bomb at the trade union building in Odessa.

Deadly assault ... A protester throws a petrol bomb at the trade union building in Odessa. Photo: Reuters

The opposing sides in a battle that is being repeated in other parts of Ukraine, especially in its east, have clashed before in Odessa, but the violence has never before resulted in deaths. Some residents say they fear some may now seek retribution.

Earlier, the police said at least four men had been killed in fighting after a march by the pro-Kiev demonstrators was ambushed. Petrol bombs, paving stones and explosive devices were thrown during the clashes, they said.

Waving the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, wearing helmets and holding batons, thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to march in support of the European path taken by Kiev. Some were supporters of the local football team, Chornomorets.

People wait to be rescued on upper floors at the trade union building in Odessa as a fire rages below them. At least 40 people were killed in the fire.

People wait to be rescued on upper floors at the trade union building in Odessa as a fire rages below them. At least 40 people were killed in the fire. Photo: Reuters

In an attack tinged with football rivalry, pro-Russian activists, many wearing the colours of team Metalist from the eastern Kharkiv region, waded into the crowd.

Police soon lost control. They said the trade union building was later set alight.

Dmytro Spivak, a local parliamentarian, told Ukrainian television that at least six young supporters of the authorities in Kiev had been killed in the fighting.

A pro-Russian activist aims a pistol at supporters of the Kiev government during clashes in the streets of Odessa.

A pro-Russian activist aims a pistol at supporters of the Kiev government during clashes in the streets of Odessa. Photo: Reuters

"It is abundantly clear that the pro-Russian side was very well armed, well organised and that this action was planned long ago," he said, adding the police did little to stop the clashes.

"I will say one thing to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin; forget about Odessa."

Ukraine's new pro-Western leaders have accused Moscow of supporting pro-Russian groups to try to destabilise a country desperately trying to recover from months of upheaval that led to the toppling of Yanukovich.

This still grabbed on TV images released by INTER, shows a man covering the bloodied body of a man with an Ukrainian flag during a demonstration in Odessa.

This still grabbed on TV images released by INTER, shows a man covering the bloodied body of a man with an Ukrainian flag during a demonstration in Odessa. Photo: AFP

The Kremlin denies playing any role in the uprisings in the east and south of Ukraine, saying Russian-speakers there are simply protecting their rights against possible assault by Kiev's pro-Western leaders.

Reuters