Ukraine has launched a military assault on the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, raising the stakes in the showdown with Russia, which has vowed “catastrophic consequences” if Kiev stepped up operations.
Pro-Russian insurgents shot down two army helicopters, killing two servicemen, including a pilot, as the army tightened its noose around the rebel-held town of 160,000 people.
The pre-dawn offensive drew a sharp response from Moscow, where a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said it dealt a “final blow” to a deal clinched last month in Geneva meant to ease the crisis.
A spokeswoman for insurgents in Slavyansk, the epicentre of tensions in eastern Ukraine, said the army had staged a “full-scale attack” on the town.
An AFP reporter on the scene saw a column of eight armoured vehicles breaching a rebel-held checkpoint just south of Slavyansk and heard explosions and sporadic small arms fire as helicopters circled overhead.
The raid marked a dramatic escalation in the crisis and jeopardised negotiations to release seven European OSCE inspectors being held by Slavyank’s insurgents.
The Kremlin said it had an envoy in east Ukraine negotiating for their freedom. A day earlier, Ukraine’s interim president reintroduced conscription amid fears of an imminent Russian invasion.
Oleksandr Turchynov has also put his armed forces on “full-combat alert” in response to the estimated 40,000 Russian troops massed on the border.
He has admitted police are powerless to stop a growing insurgency in the eastern part of the country, where pro-Russian rebels have seized control of more than a dozen towns and cities.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced the Slavyansk death toll on his Facebook page, adding that there were also personnel wounded in the operation.
“It’s a real battle we are waging against professional mercenaries,” he wrote, warning local residents to stay indoors and keep away from windows.
“Our demands for the terrorists are simple: release their hostages, lay down their arms, leave administrative buildings and restore the normal functioning of the urban infrastructure.” One Slavyansk resident, Vladimir Pader, told Russian television: “Everyone — rebels and Slavyansk residents — is determined not to surrender the city.” Eight armoured vehicles and several soldiers were seen retrenching positions at checkpoints and warned off anybody trying to approach.
Authorities said they had retaken nine rebel checkpoints.
Central Slavyansk remained relatively calm, although rebels parked a previously captured armoured vehicle in front of the town hall where the OSCE monitors are being held.
In what they called an “anti-terrorist” operation, the Ukrainian forces had for days encircled the town to prevent the insurgents receiving reinforcements.
Russia’s foreign ministry warned Thursday that any effort by Kiev to intensify its military operation “against its own people” in the east could have “catastrophic consequences”.
And Russian news agencies quoted Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying that while Moscow was “making efforts to de-escalate and settle the conflict”, Kiev had launched a “reprisal raid”.
He said the raid was “essentially finishing off the last hope for the feasibility of the Geneva accord”.
Russia’s envoy to the OSCE, Andrei Kelin, said Moscow had urged the pan-European body to “take steps to stop this reprisal raid,” according to the ITAR-TASS news agency.
Hopes had been raised in recent days that the seven OSCE hostages in Slavyansk — four Germans, a Dane, a Czech and a Pole — might soon be released but Ukraine has accused the rebels of wanting to use them as human shields.