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.PT1M40S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-37oar 620 349 May 3, 2014
Slavyansk, Ukraine: Ukraine's military lost two helicopters and two servicemen on Friday in a deadly offensive launched just before dawn against pro-Russian rebels holding the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, insurgents and authorities said.
"A full-scale attack" was being mounted, said a spokeswoman for the rebels in the town.
Ukrainian soldiers wait as Pro-Russia separatists block the road into Slavyansk to prevent them from advancing. Photo: AFP
AFP journalists reported seeing eight armoured vehicles and up to 100 troops advance to within five kilometres of the town.
Explosions and small-arms fire were heard sporadically and helicopters were seen flying extremely low.
Ukraine's defence ministry said two military Mi-24 helicopters had been shot down and two servicemen killed.
Staunch opposition ... Ukrainian soldiers (foreground) face Pro-Russia separatists blocking the road into Slavyansk. Photo: AFP
It said the rebels were using shoulder-launched missiles to bring down the aircraft. Small-arms fire also damaged an Mi-8 helicopter but no occupants were hurt, the ministry said.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his official Facebook page that one of the dead was a pilot. The SBU security service said another pilot was taken prisoner by the rebels.
Avakov, who said he was in the region of Slavyansk with the defence minister and head of the national guard, underlined the sophisticated type of weaponry the pro-Russian gunmen were using.
Russian Federation Ambassador Vitaly Churkin addresses the United Nations Security Council about the crisis in Ukraine. Russia has called the attack on Slavyansk 'criminal'. Photo: AP
"It's a real battle we are waging against professional mercenaries," he said, adding that the operation included the nearby town of Kramatorsk.
He said the "terrorists" were using human shields by firing from positions in big apartment blocks.
Avakov said the aim of the military operation was to force the rebels to free hostages they are holding and surrender.
US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel threatened Russian President Vladimir Putin with more sanctions as the crisis in Ukraine deepens. Photo: AFP
OSCE prisoners in town
Slavyansk's insurgents have been holding seven European inspectors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe they seized a week ago.
The inspectors - who were in Ukraine to monitor a deal aimed at ending the conflict that has largely been ignored since it was signed in Geneva on April 17 - were being detained in the town hall.
On Friday, the rebels parked one of several armoured personnel carriers they had captured last month in front of the building.
Rebels also began blocking access to the town centre and erecting new barricades.
Since mid-April, Ukraine's military has been surrounding Slavyansk, manning checkpoints at a distance of a few kilometres to prevent the militants inside receiving reinforcements.
Avakov said Friday's operation saw nine rebel roadblocks fall to the Ukrainian army.
The centre of Slavyansk - a town with a population of 160,000 - was itself relatively calm during the assault on the outskirts, an AFP journalist reported, but the town's church rang out its bells to alert citizens.
The rebel leadership of the town had been warning for several days that a Ukrainian military assault was imminent.
Kiev has been carrying out an operation for weeks to try to contain the rebels, but it has failed to stop them expanding their grip across east Ukraine.
Slavyansk is one of more than a dozen towns and cities pro-Russian gunmen have grabbed in the region since early last month.
The Ukrainian government and the West say the insurgency is being fomented by Moscow, which in March used the same tactics ahead of its annexation of Crimea.
Moscow denies it has any hand in the east Ukraine unrest, but warns an escalation of the Ukrainian offensive could trigger "catastrophic consequences".
Russia to Ukraine: Your military actions are ‘criminal’
The Kremlin on Friday called a major Ukrainian military effort to clear pro-Russian separatists out of the country’s occupied eastern cities “criminal” and said that President Vladimir Putin was being kept informed about the violence unfolding there as the conflict appeared to enter a dangerous new phase.
With 40,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border and Kremlin threats to intervene militarily if the interests of ethnic Russians are in peril, it seemed possible that even a small spark could ignite a tinderbox regional conflict. Russia on Friday requested that the UN Security Council meet to discuss the situation.
Hours after two Ukrainian military helicopters were shot down early Friday morning, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Russian news agencies that the Ukrainian operation to dislodge pro-Russian separatists was a crime and had “effectively destroyed the last hope for the implementation of the Geneva agreements” reached on April 17 and intended to defuse the crisis.
On pro-Kremlin television stations, people described as Russian-speaking residents of eastern Ukraine declared that the Ukrainian military actions against the pro-Russian separatists “meant war.”
“The authorities in the Ukrainian capital should come to their senses and stop the killings of their own citizens. Otherwise, the country’s fate may be extremely sad,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote on Friday on his Facebook page.
Obama, Merkel warn Putin of direct economic sanctions
The United States and Germany delivered a firm warning to Russia on Friday in Washington that it would face direct and painful economic sanctions if the elections in Ukraine later this month are disrupted.
US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered the statement after talks at the White House appeared to bring the prospect of "sectoral" economic sanctions closer than ever before.
The joint declaration effectively amounted to a new standard for the imposition of "sectoral" sanctions on Russia's economy. Previously the administration has said such measures would only come into force for a provocation on the order of Russia invading Ukraine.
"If in fact, we see the disruptions and the destabilisation continuing so severely that it impedes elections on May 25, we will not have a choice but to move forward with additional ... severe sanctions," Obama said.
"If Russia continues on its current course, we have a range of tools at our disposal, including sanctions that would target certain sectors of the Russian economy," Obama said.
AFP, The Washington Post