Thursday 18 December 2014

Ukraine troops target insurgents

Published 03/06/2014 | 04:57

A pro-Russian rebel prepares to fire a rocket propelled grenade during clashes on the outskirts of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine (AP)
A pro-Russian rebel prepares to fire a rocket propelled grenade during clashes on the outskirts of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine (AP)
Ukrainian army paratroopers pose for photo as they patrol an area after a battle with pro-Russian insurgents close to Slovyansk, Ukraine (AP)

Ukrainian troops have launched an offensive against pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern city of Slovyansk and advanced through the city's outskirts, the nation's interior minister said.

Arsen Avakov said that government troops broke through rebel positions around the village of Semenovka on the eastern fringe of Slovyansk. "An active offensive stage of the counter-terrorist operation is under way in Slovyansk," he wrote on his Facebook page.

Local residents said that several Ukrainian combat jets and helicopter gunships attacked rebel positions on the eastern outskirts of Slovyansk, and heavy artillery barrages have continued throughout the day.

An AP journalist heard sustained gun and artillery fire and saw plumes of black smoke rising over the city. Ukrainian combat jets could be seen flying over the city.

Mr Avakov warned residents in Slovyansk and the nearby cities of Kramatorsk and Krasny Liman to stay at home.

A Ukrainian military officer said one serviceman was killed and 13 others were wounded when their vehicle came under rebel fire near Slovyansk.

The Interfax news agency quoted Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the leader of insurgents in Slovyansk, as saying that his men downed a Ukrainian jet and a helicopter gunship. The information, which was denied by the Ukrainian military, could not be independently confirmed.

Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly announced an escalation in armed operations, only to eventually back down. Government forces have in recent days been noticeably reinforced to the north of Slovyansk, however, and deployment of air power over the past week has signalled increased determination.

Slovyansk, which sits on a strategic highway, has seen daily fighting between government forces and the rebels, who have seized government buildings and set up checkpoints around the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk that form Ukraine's industrial heartland.

The fighting has escalated following the May 25 presidential election won by billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko, with rebels launching an attack on Donetsk airport and shooting down a government helicopter over Slovyansk.

Yesterday hundreds of rebels armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades mounted a day-long siege of a border guards base on the outskirts of Luhansk that co-ordinates the protection of Ukraine's border with Russia. Border guards said they killed at least five rebels in repelling the attack.

Rebels in Luhansk said that eight people were killed and another 28 were wounded yesterday when a Ukrainian jet fired rockets at the regional administration building that the insurgents had turned into their headquarters.

The Ukrainian military denied launching the attack and said that the building was hit by a rebel rocket that misfired, but an observer mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said today that the building was hit by an air raid.

Ukraine's acting chief prosecutor, Oleh Makhnitskiy, said that 181 people, including 59 Ukrainian servicemen, have been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine and another 293 have been wounded.

With the insurgents controlling several cities in the east, the death toll released by Mr Makhnitskyi is likely to be incomplete.

Press Association

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