Gunfire and blasts in Ukraine city as forces clash
Gunfire and blasts have been heard around an eastern city in Ukraine that has become the focus of an armed pro-Russian insurgency.
An emergency siren sounded in Slovyansk at dawn today in a further indication government troops were mounting a military assault in an attempt to retake control.
Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the insurgency-appointed mayor of Slovyansk, said self-defence forces had shot down two helicopters and taken one pilot hostage.
He said no Ukrainian troops could be seen in the city.
An Associated Press cameraman reported seeing black plumes of smoke on the edge of the city.
The armed element of the insurgency is focused on Slovyansk, a city 160 100 miles west of Russia in which seven European observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe remain held by pro-Russia gunmen.
The official spokesman for the military wing of the pro-Russian forces, who would give only his first name, Vladislav, said fighting had broken out at several points around the city.
He said government armoured vehicles were seen on roads leading into Slovyansk and claimed that Ukrainian troops had made incursions into the city itself.
If the Ukrainian military action is confirmed, it would be the first major assault against the insurgents, who have seized police stations and other government buildings in about a dozen cities in south-eastern Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that Ukraine should withdraw its military from the eastern and southern regions of the country.
Hours later, Ukraine's acting president ordered that the military draft be renewed, citing "threats of encroachment on the nation's territorial integrity" and interference by Russia in its internal affairs.
Moscow has consistently denounced Ukrainian security forces' largely ineffectual operation against the eastern insurgents and warned they should not commit violence against civilians.
In a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr Putin said the removal of military units was the "main thing," but it was unclear if that could be construed as an outright demand.
Oleksandr Turchynov's conscription order marked a turnaround for the country, which last year announced plans to end military conscription in favour of an all-volunteer force.
His order did not specify where conscript-bolstered forces could be deployed. The renewal of military conscription affects only men 18 to 25 years old.
Earlier in the week, the acting president said police and security forces had been effectively "helpless" against insurgents in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the heart of the unrest, and that efforts should be focused on preventing the instability from spreading to other parts of the country.