PRO-RUSSIAN forces shot down two Ukrainian helicopters as Ukraine launched its first major offensive against an insurgency that has seized government buildings in the east.
The Kremlin said Kiev’s move “destroyed” hopes for peace in the region.
Fighting broke out around dawn near Slovyansk yesterday, a city 100 miles from the Russian border that has become the focus of the armed insurgency against Ukraine’s interi government.
Two helicopter crew members were killed in the clashes, and a pro-Russia militiaman was reported killed.
One of the helicopters was hit by a shoulder-held surface-to-air missile, the Ukrainian Security Service said, adding that the sophisticated weapon undercut Russia’s claims the city was under the control of armed locals.
In Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said the offensive “effectively destroyed the last hope for the implementation of the Geneva agreements” of that aimed todefuse the crisis.
A day earlier, Mr Putin warned Ukraine not to move against the insurgents and said it should withdraw its military from eastern and southernregions.
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, is deeply divided between those in the west who favour closer ties with Europe and many Russian speakers in the east who look toward Moscow.Ukraine has accused Russia of backing the insurgents who have seized government buildings in ten eastern cities and fears that Moscow is seeking a pretext to invade. Russia has stationed tens of thousands of troops in areas near the Ukrainian border.
Russian troops backed separatists in Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March, then annexed the region after a referendum called for secession.
A deal in Geneva last month was aimed at getting those who had seized government buildings in Ukraine to leave and calm down the tensions that have prompted the United States and the European Union to hit Russia with sanctions.
Many pro-Russia rebels have been killed, injured and arrested in the Ukrainian government offensive in Slovyansk, acting president Oleksandr Turchynov has said.
In a statement, he said the operation in the rebel-held city was not going as quickly as hoped.
Russia’s foreign ministry accused Ukraine’s fledging government of using “terrorists” from ultranationalist organisations for the military operation.
Ukrainian troops met fierce resistance yesterday morning but managed to take control of nine checkpoints on the roads around Slovyansk, interior minister Arsen Avakov said.
By late afternoon, the Ukrainian Security Service said half of Slovyansk was in the control of the Ukrainian army.
Central Slovyansk still remained in the hands of pro-Russian gunmen, according to journalists in the city.
Hours after Mr Putin demanded on Thursday that Ukraine pull back its military from the east and south, Mr Turchynov ordered that military conscription be renewed, citing “threats of encroachment on the nation’s territorial integrity” and interference by Russia in its affairs.
Kiev’s interim government came to power after president Viktor Yanukovich fled to Russia in February, drummed out by months of anti-government protests.