Ukraine crisis: Helicopter gunship blown up and international observers held by gunmen as violence escalates

Government aircraft is targeted at supposedly secure military base


A helicopter gunship was blown up in Ukraine on Friday as the confrontation between the Kiev administration and militant separatists becomes increasingly violent.

The Mil MI-8 was about to take off from an airfield when it came under fire. The subsequent explosions, The Independent has learnt, were caused by weaponry and ammunition on board for a mission which was primarily one of surveillance but also one in which defensive action could be taken if necessary. The pilot, a captain in the Ukraine army’s air corps, was shot in the shoulder, but managed to get out safely with the two other crewmen before the secondary blasts.

The fact that the gunship – one of the most formidable weapons in the Ukrainian armoury – could be targeted at a supposedly secure base will cause deep concern in the country’s military. Kramatorsk airport is the base for troops, armour and aircraft which have been sent into the east of the country to retake towns and cities that have slipped into the control of militants.

In another development, a group of observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) accompanying Ukrainian forces was arrested by separatists in Slovyansk. The city’s pro-Moscow mayor, Viacheslav Ponomariov, claimed last night that the group had included “spies”.

While negotiations began for their release, security was being tightened at the airport. Ukrainian defence sources said a sniper had used a high location in Kramatorsk to fire on the helicopter. The pilot, who was described as extremely experienced, managed to turn the aircraft away from inhabited buildings to face open ground, The Independent was told, as a precaution against the missiles being set off by security system failures.

The attack comes a day after Ukrainian armoured personnel carriers fired on a checkpoint at the neighbouring city of Slovyansk in an assault in which 22-year-old Aleksandr Lubenec, was killed and another man injured. Three more pro-Russian protesters had died in an earlier attack in the same area which was blamed on the ultra-nationalist Right Sector group.

The separatist leadership had vowed revenge. A member of the Kramatorsk Brigade of Peoples’ Republic of Donetsk claimed that a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) had been used in the attack. “Our people approached the airfield, shot a RPG in the direction of the helicopter. There was an explosion, Kiev militants started shooting and we protesters retreated.”

Read more: Ukraine crisis: West threatens more aggressive sanctions against Putin’s regime
Ukraine crisis: 'Russia wants to start World War Three', Prime Minister warns after pro-Russians accused of shooting down helicopter  

However, a senior Ukrainian officer at the base stressed: “There will be an inquiry, but, as far as we know, a high-calibre round was used from the direction of Kramatorsk city.  The reason for the extent of the damage was the ammunition on board. This is obviously very worrying; there are lots of civilians inside the building and also children of civilian staff; fortunately none were present when this happened. We have had small arms fire directed at helicopters from the ground, they have not caused much damage, this is definitely an escalation.”

Some of the widows of the airport building had been shattered in the blast. The owner of the airport, Dmitri Podushkin, was present with his wife, Vera. The couple have had to deal with a protesters’ checkpoint on the drive into the main gate, with often acrimonious exchanges, but were not expecting, they said, such levels of violence. “Our window was only 200m  away from where the helicopter blew up and it was pretty shocking,” said Mrs Podushkin. “We were very worried about the men inside with the fire and the explosions, but they got out. We have children, but luckily they were away.”

The trajectory of the round which hit the helicopter would have passed over the head of Nina Grigorieva planting her allotment outside the base. “I heard three explosions, two quick ones followed by another one after about 10 minutes. It is so frightening what’s happening to our country. We have enough problems without all this fighting. Look at me, I am 80 years old and having to do this to feed myself. My children are also poor, they can’t help me.”

Ukrainian helicopters have been dropping leaflets in the area over the past week. The pieces of paper, showing an image of a man in balaclava with a Kalashnikov, state: “Here are your instructions on how to survive in the territories where Russian terrorists act.” The subsequent list tells residents how to avoid pitfalls such as becoming human shields.

The newly installed pro-Moscow mayor in Slovyansk has threatened to arrest anyone found in possession of one such leaflet. He also declared that it was legitimate to shoot down the helicopters because they were disseminating American briefings.

Warning to the constitutional theme in the same referendum, Viacheslav Ponomariov, announced at the same briefing that anyone voting in the national presidential elections on 25 May would be suspended from the ceiling by their genitals.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little