Updated: May 6, 2014 12:19:36 am
Pro-Russian rebels shot down a Ukrainian helicopter in fierce fighting near the eastern town of Slovyansk on Monday, and Kiev drafted police special forces to the southwestern port city of Odessa to halt a feared westward spread of rebellion.
Ukraine said the Odessa force, based on “civil activists”, would replace local police who had failed to tackle rebel actions at the weekend. Its dispatch was a clear signal from Kiev that, while tackling rebellion in the east, it would vigorously resist any sign of a slide to a broader civil war.
Odessa, with its ethnic mix from Russians to Ukrainians, Georgians to Tatars a cultural contrast to the pro-Russian east, was quiet on Monday. Ukrainian flags flew at half mast for funerals of some of the dozens killed in clashes on Friday.
But in the east, fighting intensified around the pro-Russian stronghold of Slovyansk, a city of 118,000, where rebel fighters ambushed Ukrainian forces early in the day.
The Interior Ministry said five Ukrainian paramilitary police were killed. Separatists said four of their number had also been killed.
The sound of an air-raid siren could be heard in the centre of Slovyansk, and a church bell rang in the main square.
Russia’s foreign ministry called on Kiev to “stop the bloodshed, withdraw forces and finally sit down at the negotiating table”. It also published an 80-page report detailing “widespread and gross human rights violations” in Ukraine over the past six months for which it blamed the new government and its Western allies.
Russia denies Ukrainian and Western accusations it is seeking to undermine the country of 45 million and using special forces to lead the insurgency across the border, as it did before annexing Crimea in March.
The self-declared pro-Russian mayor of Slovyansk Vyacheslav Ponomarev told Reuters by telephone: “(The Ukrainians) are reinforcing, deploying ever more forces here. Recently there was a parachute drop… For us, they are not military, but fascists.”
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said rebels had shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter, the fourth since Friday, with heavy machine gun fire. The helicopter crashed into a river and the crew were rescued alive, but there were no details of their condition.
On Sunday, hundreds besieged a police station where fellow pro-Moscow activists had been held since the shooting and fighting that led up to the house blaze. Police then freed 67 of them, infuriating Kiev. “The police in Odessa acted outrageously,” Interior Minister Arseny Avakov wrote on his Facebook page. “The ‘honour of the uniform’ will offer no cover.”
He said he had sent the newly formed Kiev-1 force of “civil activists” to Odessa following the sacking of the entire Odessa force leadership.
The units Avakov referred to emerged partly from the uprising against Yanukovych early this year.
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