Monday 22 December 2014

Dozens killed in Ukraine clashes

Published 02/05/2014 | 06:52

Ukrainian soldiers stand guard on a road leading to Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine (AP)
Ukrainian soldiers stand guard on a road leading to Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine (AP)
Pro-Russian gunmen at barricades in Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine (AP)

Ukraine's offensive to recapture an eastern city controlled by pro-Russia forces sharply escalated the crisis in the country's east today sparking a clash in the southern port of Odessa that left 31 dead.

The Kremlin said the move by Kiev's interim government effectively killed the Geneva pact aimed at cooling the unrest, but pledged to continue efforts to try to calm the tensions.

By nightfall, Ukrainian troops and armoured personnel carriers had blocked all major roads into the eastern city of Slovyansk, the centre of the pro-Russia insurgency.

Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov claimed that "many" insurgents had been killed or wounded but the offensive also underlined the military's vulnerability. Both sides said two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down by the insurgents, killing two crew members.

The Ukrainian Security Service said one was downed with a surface-to-air missile, adding that the sophisticated weapon undercut Russia's claims the city of 125,000 people was simply under the control of armed locals.

Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops in areas near Ukraine's border. Kiev officials claim Russia is preparing to invade and that it is fomenting the unrest in the east, where insurgents have seized government buildings in about a dozen cities in towns. Moscow denies the allegations, but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned Russia would respond to attacks on Russian citizens or interests in the east.

Unlike eastern Ukraine, Odessa had remained largely untroubled since the February toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. But a clash erupted tonight between pro-Russians and government supporters in the key port on the Black Sea coast.

Police said the deadly fire broke out in a trade union building.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said the Ukrainian offensive "effectively destroyed the last hope for the implementation of the Geneva agreement" of two weeks ago that aimed to defuse the crisis. But Dmitry Peskov also said Russia "continues to undertake consistent efforts on de-escalation".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama warned that Russia could be hit by new sanctions from Washington and the EU if it continues disruptive actions in Ukraine. Previous sanctions are showing signs of significant effect on the Russian economy.

Ukraine launched a fightback against insurgents near Slovyansk. The city is strategically key because Ukraine has a huge stockpile of automatic rifles and other light weapons nearby.

Mr Turchynov admitted earlier this week that the central government had lost control of the east, and said some government troops and police there were "either helping or cooperating with terrorist organisations". He said Ukrainian forces were working to prevent the unrest from spreading to central areas like Odessa.

At Russia's request, the UN Security Council held an emergency session on Ukraine but again failed to agree action.

Ukraine has accused Russia of backing the insurgents who have seized government buildings in at least 10 eastern cities and fears that Moscow is seeking a pretext to invade or annex more territory like it did with Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March.

The peace deal in Geneva last month aimed to get 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 slap Russia with rounds of sanctions.

Russia's foreign ministry accused Ukraine's fledging government of using "terrorists" from ultranationalist organisations for today's military operation. It also claimed that Kiev deployed tanks and helicopters that were "conducting missile strikes on protesters," something that neither side in Ukraine reported.

Kiev's interim government came to power after Yanukovych fled, drummed out by months of anti-government protests. Ukraine plans to hold a new presidential election on May 25.

Press Association

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