Pro-Russia rebels kill Ukrainian troops in ambush
Rebels in Ukraine's eastern town of Slavyansk won a significant victory yesterday, shooting down a helicopter and killing four government troops in an ambush.
During about 90 minutes of fighting, the pro-Russian insurgents who control the town of 120,000 people dealt another blow to the "anti-terrorist" operation launched by Ukraine's new rulers. They lost three of their own men; one civilian was also killed.
The ambush happened on the outskirts of Slavyansk, near the junction between the main roads leading to the regional capitals, Donetsk and Kharkiv.
A man who lives nearby, who declined to be named, said the firing began at about 11.30am and continued until 1pm. "A lot of people were shot today; I saw the ambulances going past here," he said. "It was the self-defence forces of the town fighting the government's troops."
The term "self-defence forces" is the accepted euphemism for the pro-Russian rebels who seized control of Slavyansk last month in the name of the "Donetsk People's Republic".
Ukraine's government responded with a military operation designed to restore control over Donetsk region. After two false starts, the operation had finally started to gain ground. On Sunday, the army established a checkpoint on the main road linking Slavyansk with Donetsk.
About 20 soldiers and six armoured personnel carriers were deployed there yesterday. The strongpoint is carefully positioned to separate Slavyansk from the nearby town of Kramatorsk, which is also held by insurgents, and to choke off the flow of supplies.
Ukrainian forces have pressed closer to Slavyansk, apparently with the aim of sealing off the town. They have seized control of the television tower, a prominent landmark.
The location of yesterday's battle – inside the perimeter of Slavyansk but still about half a mile away from the rebel headquarters near the central square – suggests that government troops are trying to tighten the noose.
But the ambush appeared to have thwarted their efforts. Arsen Avakov, the interior minister, said four of his men had been killed and another 30 wounded. Speaking near Slavyansk, where he was overseeing the operation, he promised to press on with the offensive, saying: "My mission is to eliminate the terrorists."
Later, a Ukrainian helicopter gunship was shot down by machinegun fire outside the town. The defence ministry said the aircraft had been "patrolling near" Slavyansk when it came under attack.
The helicopter crashed in a river and all the crew were safe. "The operational team of the counter-terrorist centre evacuated them to base," added the ministry statement. It was the third helicopter that Ukrainian forces have lost near Slavyansk in the past four days. Two were shot down on Friday.
The authorities believe that about 800 insurgents are inside the town, equipped with armoured personnel carriers they captured from the Ukrainian army during the first phase of the offensive. The government accuses Russia of helping the rebels with weapons, equipment and planning, while also embedding special forces soldiers within their ranks.
However, ordinary civilians in Slavyansk believe the operation is directed against them.
They point out that many of the soldiers involved have been flown in from other regions of the country. "Even Hitler was not stupid enough to fight against his own people," said one woman in Slavyansk, who declined to give her name. (© Daily Telegraph, London)