Ukraine latest: Pro-Russians shoot down helicopter in fierce fighting for control of Slovyansk

Violence in east continues as Kiev send special forces to Odessa to stop western uprising in its tracks

Pro-Russian rebels shot down a Ukrainian helicopter in fierce fighting near the eastern town of Slovyansk yesterday, as Kiev drafted police special forces to the south-western port city of Odessa to halt a feared westward spread of rebellion.

Ukraine said the Odessa force, based on “civil activists”, would replace local police who had failed to tackle rebel actions at the weekend. Its dispatch was a clear signal from Kiev that, while tackling rebellion in the east, it would vigorously resist any sign of a slide to a broader civil war.

Meanwhile in Moldova, President Nicolae Timofti said security forces had been ordered “to take all necessary actions to ensure public order inside the country” and declared an alert on the country’s borders in response to the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine. Moldova has 1,500 Russian troops stationed in the separatist republic of Trans-Dniester, which has said it wants to become part of Russia.

Odessa, with its ethnic mix from Russians to Ukrainians, Georgians to Tatars – a cultural contrast to the pro-Russian east– was quiet yesterday. Ukrainian flags flew at half-mast for funerals of some of the dozens killed in clashes on Friday.

But in the east, fighting intensified around the pro-Russian stronghold of Slovyansk, a city of 118,000, where rebel fighters ambushed Ukrainian forces early in the day. The Interior Ministry said five Ukrainian paramilitary police were killed. Separatists said four of their number had also been killed.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called on Kiev to “stop the bloodshed, withdraw forces and finally sit down at the negotiating table”. It also published an 80-page report detailing “gross human rights violations” in Ukraine over the past six months for which it blamed the new government and its Western allies.

Russia denies Ukrainian and Western accusations it is seeking to undermine the country of 45 million and using special forces to lead the insurgency across the border, as it did before annexing Crimea in March.

The self-declared pro-Russian mayor of Slovyansk Vyacheslav Ponomarev told Reuters: “[The Ukrainians] are reinforcing, deploying ever more forces here. Recently there was a parachute drop... For us, they are not military, but fascists.”

Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said rebels had shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter, the fourth since Friday, with heavy machine gun fire. The helicopter crashed into a river and the crew were rescued alive, but there were no details of their condition.

Diana, 15, who lives near the strategic junction of the road between Kharkiv and Rostov, said she saw Ukrainian tanks fire on rebel cars. A fuel tank at a petrol station exploded and fighters fired at houses. “My father was injured in the head by glass splinters. It’s terrifying. There’s just nowhere to live. They shot at our car.”

The violence in Odessa marked a watershed for Ukraine. It increased fears that trouble could spread to the capital in the approach to Friday’s celebrations of the Soviet victory in the Second World War. More than 40 people were killed in Friday’s clashes, the worst since pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich fled to Moscow in February. Most were pro-Russians killed when the building they occupied was set ablaze by petrol bombs.

On Sunday, hundreds besieged a police station where fellow pro-Moscow activists had been held. Police then freed 67 of them, infuriating Kiev. “The police in Odessa acted outrageously,” Interior Minister Arseny Avakov wrote on his Facebook page. “The ‘honour of the uniform’ will offer no cover.”

Loss of control of Odessa would be a huge economic and political blow for Ukraine.

Many said they were shocked by the violence. “People who brought this to our city were not and are not and will not be true citizens of Odessa,” said Alexey, 40, an ethnic Russian. “We are Odessa, and this is a special place.”

Rabbi Fichel Chichelnitsky, an official with Odessa’s 70,000-strong Jewish community, said: “I’m hoping these deaths serve as a stern warning to everyone that this is not a game.”

Odessa, a city of a million people, with a grand history as the cosmopolitan southern gateway for the tsars’ empire, has two ports, including an oil terminal, and is a key transport hub.

Unrest there would also heighten Western concern that Ukraine could disintegrate, leading to a deep crisis in relations between the West and Moscow. REUTERS

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