Up to 50 dead after Ukraine attacks Russian stronghold
Published 03/05/2014 | 02:30
Up to 50 people were killed as violence flared across Ukraine, with bloody clashes between Ukrainian and Russia sympathisers resulting in mass deaths when a tower block was set on fire, while two helicopters were shot down during a military assault on a pro-Russian stronghold.
The fragile integrity of Ukraine was dealt a devastating blow when 38 people were killed in a fire at a trade union building in the centre of Ukraine's southern port city of Odessa.
It later revised the figure down to 31 with 23 dying from carbon monoxide poisoning and eight after leaping from the top floors to escape the flames.
Pro-Ukrainian protesters had tried to storm the building in the Black Sea port but encountered resistance from pro-Russian defenders, resulting in the building being set on fire. Some 330 miles further east both sides took casualties in the occupied city of Slavyansk, in the most serious fighting since a pro-Russian rebellion took control of several towns in the region.
The effort to dislodge the separatist militia in control of Slavyansk was launched as Kiev's troops seized and destroyed a rebel checkpoint and reclaimed the TV tower in village of Andrievka, three miles to the south-west of the town.
The "anti-terrorist operation" began at 4.30am but ground to a virtual halt after rebels apparently used rocket-propelled grenades to down two helicopter gunships, killing two Ukrainian serviceman and capturing one injured pilot.
Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting Ukrainian president, claimed that "many" rebels had been killed in the operation, a claim that could not be confirmed. "The criminals suffered heavy losses: many killed, wounded and many prisoners," Mr Turchynov said.
However, other reports said five pro-Russian activists and two helicopter pilots had died in the fighting. The deaths of five in earlier street-to-street fighting in Odessa between Russian and Ukrainian crowds brought the day's overall toll to 50.
Russia seized on the violence to call a UN Security Council meeting on the crisis as it declared the pro-Western government in Kiev must face action for attacking its own people.
Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, urged the Western-backed leaders in Kiev to "stop killing their citizens," saying that the Slavyansk raid was "a sign of criminal helplessness".
"People are dying. Blood is being shed," Mr Medvedev said. "Responsibility for a war against their own people rests with those who are making criminal decisions in Kiev."
Vladimir Putin's spokesman said the Geneva agreement to defuse the volatile situation in eastern Ukraine was no longer viable after the Ukrainian decision to use force.
Troop movements on the Ukrainian border in recent weeks have raised fears that Russia may use violence in the region as a pretext for armed intervention, but Moscow has so far ignored pleas by the self-appointed mayor of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, to send "peacekeeping" forces.
The pro-Russian militia loyal to the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk say it has been expecting an assault nightly since it seized control of Slavyansk on April 12.
A rebel spokesman said three militia men and two civilians had been killed in fighting that was concentrated at checkpoints on the city's Western approaches, bringing the total confirmed death toll to seven.
Despite some gains on the roads to the West of Slavyansk, the Ukrainians made no effort to fight their way into the town.
As rain dripped down, the assault settled down into a stand-off between Ukrainian forces and unarmed civilians at the captured Andrievka checkpoint. (© Daily Telegraph, London)