Gunfire, explosions heard near rebel-held Ukraine town

Gunfire and heavy detonations were heard on Friday just outside Ukraine\’s rebel-held town of Slavyansk, in what the insurgents claimed was "a full-scale attack" by the Ukrainian military.
Pro-Russian separatists in the city said on Friday Ukrainian forces had launched a “large-scale operation” to retake the town and one military helicopter had been shot down.
The Ukrainian interior minister confirmed that one pilot was killed and others wounded after separatists fired anti-aircraft missiles against the Kyiv forces.
Men standing near a burning barricade cheered at the news of the downed helicopter.
An armed masked man there vowed to continue to fight as he explained to Reuters how the helicopter was downed.
“Yes, it [a helicopter] was taken down. It was flying over the city after the paratroopers landed, and there was a fight there. After that, it was flying over here, and it was taken down. One rocket missed it, but it was hit by second one,” he said.
Armed groups seeking union with Russia have seized a number of government buildings in towns in eastern Ukraine.  
The reported attack comes hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that Ukraine withdraw all military personnel from the troubled region near the Russian border. Putin made the demand in a phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who meets with President Barack Obama Friday in Washington.
On Thursday, Ukraine\’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov signed a military conscription decree to deal with increasingly violent pro-Russian separatists who have seized buildings in about a dozen cities in Ukraine\’s Russian-speaking east.
The Ukrainian conscription decree targets 18-25-year-olds.
Earlier this week, the Ukrainian leader said his government was "helpless" to quell the growing pro-Russian separatist movement in two eastern regions.
Turchynov also conceded that his government had lost control of its own troops in southeastern Ukraine.
He also said Ukraine was on "full combat alert" amid fears that Russian troops could invade.
Protesters control a number of key buildings in Donetsk and have declared a May 11 referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
A similar vote last month led to Russia\’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Some 40,000 Russian troops are stationed near the Ukrainian border.
On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Russia in a phone call to President Vladimir Putin to help free foreign monitors held in eastern Ukraine.
The crisis has plunged East-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War ended in the early 1990s.
Source: Agencies
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