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.”

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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.