Ukraine’s military has reportedly begun a military operation to regain control of the eastern city of Slovyansk. There are reports that at least one helicopter has been shot down over the city.
Pro-Russian separatists said Ukrainian forces had begun a “large-scale operation” to capture the city.
The Russian news agency Interfax has quoted the self-declared mayor of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, as saying two military helicopters were shot down. He said one pilot was killed and another taken hostage. Other sources are reporting that just one helicopter was hit. Heavy gunfire and blasts were heard on the city’s outskirts.
Journalists inside the city say the center remains relatively calm, although an air raid alarm can reportedly be heard. There was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian authorities.
The city of around 100,000 residents has been a stronghold for pro-Russian separatists who control of dozens of government buildings across Ukraine’s east.
Moscow has previously warned Ukraine against any attack on protesters in the region.
Activists in Slovyansk are currently holding seven observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The monitors from Germany, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic were detained last week.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to use his influence to force their release.
The reported operation comes a day after Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov signed a decree reintroducing military conscription. He said the move was designed to tackle the “naked aggression” of pro-Russian separatists who were threatening the country’s “territorial integrity.”
It followed the seizure of yet another government building in the eastern city of Donetsk, which lies 110km (70miles) south of Slovyansk.
Separatists are attempting to force the region’s secession from Ukraine. Some are hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Crimean Peninsula and hold a referendum on joining the Russian Federation.
Several Western nations have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest in order to justify a military intervention. However Moscow has strenuously denied the allegations.
Eastern Ukraine, which is made up of a large Russian-speaking population, was the heartland of support for former president and Kremlin ally, Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February.
More to come …
ccp/hc (dpa, Reuters)