Heavy fighting in pro-Russian separatist stronghold

Pro-Russian armed men ride on top of an armoured personnel carrier near the town of Slaviansk, eastern Ukraine, May 5, 2014. Reuters
Heavy fighting erupted Monday in a pro-Russian separatist stronghold in eastern Ukraine, with deaths reported on both sides, as government efforts to quell the insurgency move the conflict into a more-dangerous phase.
Six people have been killed and around 100 wounded, said a Ukraine Security Service spokeswoman. Russia\’s Interfax news agency quoted a separatist source in Slovyansk as saying that 20 or more pro-Russian militants had been killed in the fighting.
Also, a Ukrainian military helicopter was shot down near Slovyansk on Monday, but the pilots survived, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said.
The helicopter, which came under fire from a heavy machine gun, crashed into a river. The ministry said in a statement the crew were evacuated to a nearby camp but did not give any detail of their condition.
At least three other helicopters have been shot down by pro-Russian rebels in recent days.
Separately, Kyiv drafted police special forces to the southwestern port city of Odessa to halt a feared westward spread of the separatist rebellion.
Ukrainian authorities said the Odessa force would replace local police who had failed to tackle rebel actions over the weekend. Its dispatch was a clear signal from Kyiv that, while dealing with the rebellion in the east, it would vigorously resist any sign of a slide to a broader civil war.
Meanwhile, Russia has called on the Kyiv government on Monday to stop using armed force against its people and enter talks aimed at resolving the Ukraine crisis.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that a humanitarian crisis was looming in blockaded towns in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been trying to dislodge pro-Russian separatists who have occupied official buildings.
It called on the Kyiv authorities “to come to their senses, stop the bloodshed, withdraw forces and finally sit down at the negotiating table to begin a normal dialogue about ways to resolve the political crisis.”
Pro-Russian militants stormed a Ukrainian police station in Odessa on Sunday and freed nearly 70 fellow activists as Ukraine’s prime minister blamed police corruption there for dozens of deaths in rioting on Friday.
About 300 pro-Russian activists forced their way into the Odessa police station, gathering in the courtyard, while about a thousand more surrounded the modern complex.
Ukraine\’s interior minister has said military operations in the east would continue, \’vowing to not stop\’.
Arsen Avakov said troops had recaptured a television tower and government buildings from rebels in Kramatorsk, a town near the pro-Russian stronghold city of Slovyansk. 
Ukraine\’s National Security and Defense Council chief Andrily Parubiy said Sunday an anti-terrorist operation will be carried out in towns beyond Slovyansk and Kramatorak.
Gunfire was reported overnight in Kostyantynivka, where one separatist checkpoint was dismantled, and Mariupol as Ukrainian forces tried to reclaim government offices.
There had been heavy fighting in the town of Kramatorsk on Saturday, with the interior ministry saying the army had retaken a television tower.
Kiev officials said at least two people were killed in the town, although Russian state television reported 10 deaths.
Andriy Parubiy said on Sunday that the military would expand the "active stage of the operation in towns where extremists and terrorists are carrying out illegal activities".
In Moscow, a Kremlin spokesman (Dmitri Peskov) said Russian President Vladimir Putin had not yet decided how to respond to the offensive, or to the deaths of at least 42 people — most of them pro-Russian — who died in fighting Friday in the port city of Odessa. 
European military observers who were held more than a week by pro-Russian separatists have arrived in Germany a day after they were released in the Ukrainian eastern town of Slovyansk.
The five observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)  – along with five of their Ukrainian assistants – were freed on Saturday.
They were deployed following a pact struck between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the US in mid-April aimed to resolve the crisis, which began with Russia\’s annexation of Crimea.
Western leaders had condemned the abductions.
On Friday, US President Barack Obama again called for the observers to be released, saying their abduction was "inexcusable" and "disgraceful".
The observers – four Germans, a Dane, a Pole and a Czech – are not part of the main OSCE monitoring mission, which was agreed after long negotiations by Russia, Ukraine and the US.
Kiev has resumed military action against the separatists, with fighting reported in Kramatorsk.
Some 42 people died in Odessa on Friday, most of them in the fire at the Trade Unions House, where separatist protesters had barricaded themselves following running battles with pro-Kiev activists.
The deaths came as pro-Russian protesters clashed with Ukrainian government supporters in the city.
Officials said some people were overwhelmed by smoke and others died after they jumped from the building.
A revised government statement said the fire broke out in a trade union building, and that 31 bodies were found at the scene – seven fewer than police first reported. The Russian news agency RIA Novosti said about 50 others were injured, including 10 police officers.
Odessa, a key Black Sea port, had largely escaped the pro-Russian separatist-driven violence gripping large parts of eastern Ukraine.
Earlier Friday, Ukrainian government forces launched the first major assault on the rebel-held eastern city of Slovyansk. Pro-Russian separatists brought down two Ukrainian military helicopters involved in the operation.
Eastern Ukraine has been a focus of concern in Western capitals since Moscow annexed mainly Russian Crimea from Ukraine in March. Clashes have also broken out in largely Russian-speaking Odessa, not far from Crimea, but they had never involved deaths before.

Police said at least three people were shot dead and 15 others were wounded in running battles between people backing Kyiv and pro-Russian activists in the town. The fighting continued into the evening.
In the east, separatists said Ukrainian forces killed three of their fighters and two civilians when they moved in on Slovyansk in the early hours on Friday in what Moscow called a “criminal\’\’ assault.
Kyiv said two helicopter crew members had died and seven servicemen had been wounded in the operation, which it admitted had not achieved much.
Western media said Ukrainian forces had seized rebel checkpoints on the outskirts of the city, but have not advanced toward its heavily fortified center.
President Vladimir Putin\’s spokesman said Ukrainian forces had fired on civilians from the air in Slovyansk in a “punitive operation\’\’ that destroyed an international peace plan. Moscow has tens of thousands of troops massed on the border and claims the right to invade if needed to protect Russian speakers.
In New York, Western powers and Russia used an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to accuse each other of failing to take appropriate steps to de-escalate the crisis.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said "the scale of Russian hypocrisy is breathtaking."
For his part, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin accused the West of applying double standards in the crisis by condoning the current Ukrainian offensive, after urging then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych not to deploy troops when his government in Kyiv was under siege earlier this year.
And in Washington on Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama warned that If Moscow continues fueling unrest in Ukraine, Putin and others in his leadership circle will face increasingly broad sanctions.  
During a joint news conference at the White House Rose Garden, Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they want to see a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.
Otherwise, Obama and Merkel warned Russia that if it further destabilizes Ukraine or interferes in Ukraine\’s May 25 presidential elections, it will face more sanctions.
Earlier Friday, the Western-backed government in Kyiv said the use of missiles that brought down its helicopters was evidence that Russian forces were in the town. Moscow denies that its troops are on the ground.
Ukraine\’s Turchynov said Russian “armed saboteurs\’\’ had tried to cross into the country overnight, but were pushed back by Ukrainian border troops. He gave no further details.
Russia\’s Security Service said his report was untrue.
Turchynov said the military operation had been complicated by the rebels\’ use of human shields and had not progressed as quickly as had been hoped.
By early afternoon Friday, military operations in and around Slovyansk appeared to have ceased, leaving the region in a state of tension and Ukrainian and separatist forces facing off near a strategic bridge that was under government control. The Ukrainians did not seem eager to engage the militants, limiting their activities to tightening a cordon around the city of 130,000, the New York Times reported.
The growing chaos is overshadowing a presidential election the pro-Western leadership in Kyiv is planning for May 25. The rebels are planning a vote on May 11 to seek a mandate to break with Kyiv, like one held in Crimea before Moscow took it over.
The European Union said it was watching events in eastern Ukraine with growing concern. But Kyiv is not a member of NATO and Western leaders have made clear they will not fight to defend Ukraine.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said NATO\’s European members needed to increase their defense spending in light of Russia\’s action in Ukraine.
Hagel said one of the biggest obstacles to investment in defense was the sense that the prospect of conflict among nations had dissipated with the end of the Cold War.
"Russia\’s actions in Ukraine shatter that myth and usher in bracing new realities," he said, speaking about the future of the NATO alliance at the Wilson Center in Washington on Friday.
"Over the long term, we should expect Russia to test our alliance\’s purpose, stamina, and commitment," Hagel said.
Earlier Friday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a statement that two Mi-24 attack helicopters had been shot down by shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles while on patrol overnight around Slovyansk.
A third helicopter, an Mi-8 transport aircraft, was also hit and a serviceman wounded, the Defense Ministry said. Ukraine\’s Secret Security Service said this helicopter was carrying medics.
Ukrainian officials said their troops overran rebel checkpoints and Slovyansk was now "tightly encircled."
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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