IZYUM, Ukraine – Ukraine exploded in fresh violence on Friday, as an anti-terrorist operation was launched in the country’s beleaguered eastern region and skirmishes broke out in the southern port city of Odesa between pro-Russian separatists and activists who support a united Ukraine. Several were reported killed and injured in both cases.
It was only days ago that Ukraine’s interim president said Ukraine was “helpless” in purging pro-Kremlin insurgents from the eastern cities in which they have captured strategic government buildings and dug in.
Previous attempts to push them out had been largely unsuccessful. On Friday, the authorities tried again, launching a new and vigorous anti-terrorist operation in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk that saw Ukrainian forces clear nine illegal rebel-controlled checkpoints and tighten its grip on the cities.
They had slightly better success this time around, but it came at a steep price. Two military helicopters were shot down and another was forced to land. Two pilots were killed when pro-Kremlin rebels fired surface-to-air missiles at the helicopters. Another pilot was wounded and taken hostage in Sloviansk.
At least one pro-Russian rebel was killed and several more were injured when they exchanged gunfire with Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that "against Ukraine’s special forces, terrorists used heavy artillery, including grenade launchers and portable anti-aircraft missile launchers.”
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said Ukrainian forces’ attack on rebel checkpoints around Sloviansk had left "many insurgents dead, wounded and arrested,” but admitted that the anti-terrorist operation “doesn't unroll as fast as we want it to, and is significantly complicated by the fact that the terrorists' bases are located in crowded cities and the terrorists themselves hide behind civilians, take hostages and shoot from the windows of apartment buildings."
Despite all that, “the offensive on the terrorists goes on,” he said.
Skirmishes were reported throughout the day as checkpoints previously manned by the rebels burned.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitriy Peskov protested on Friday the Kyiv government's decision to launch the anti-terrorist operation, calling it “punitive” and saying it had shattered the final hope of a deal made in Geneva meant to ease the crisis here, Russian news agencies reported.
“The Kyiv regime ordered combat aircraft to fire at civilian towns and villages,” Peskov added.
As the Ukrainian operation unfolded, Russia called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the "serious escalation of violence in Ukraine."
Putin said on May 1 that Ukraine should withdraw its troops from its eastern region. Russia has massed troops on its western border and threatened to intervene in Ukraine in order to protect ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine from what it calls an illegitimate, "junta" and "fascist" Kyiv government backed by the West.
Despite fears of a large-scale Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine, there were no signs on Friday of those troops along the country's border mobilizing.
In Izyum, 45 kilometers north of Sloviansk, Ukrainians Interior Ministry troops had strict orders not to let anyone pass through a checkpoint here. Armed with automatic rifles and donning full combat gear, more than a dozen troops scrutinized each car stopping at the check point. An armored personnel carrier and a military helicopter remained parked nearby.
The troops told the Kyiv Post that they were unsure of how long the active phase of the anti-terrorist operation would go on in Sloviansk, but warned that pro-Russian rebels had been seen firing on cars driving into the city.
"It's not safe to pass here," on of the troops said. He declined to give his last name because he did not have permission to speak to journalists. "They (the rebels) don't care who is in the car; they will shoot."
He was right in one respect. Several Western journalists were captured at a checkpoint en route to Sloviansk Friday morning and interrogated in the basement of a building in nearby Horlivka.
Odesa explodes in violence
Meanwhile in the port city of Odesa, at least 35 people were killed in a fire and several others were injured as pro-Russian separatists clashed with a pro-Ukrainian group, the Interior Ministry reported. It said 27 were killed from carbon monoxide poisoning and 8 others died after leaping from the burning building. One man who received a gunshot wound died before medics arrived on the scene, due to the bullet puncturing his lung.
The rival groups hurled stones, smoke grenades and Molotov cocktails at each other. As the clash wore on, the city's Trade Union building, which acted as the anti-Maidan and separatists' headquarters, was set ablaze.
Obama, Merkel come out in support of Ukraine
Standing side-by-side during a joint press conference on Friday to project a unified stance on Ukraine, U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel threatened to slap Russian with fresh and tougher sanctions against if Moscow doesn't quit its meddling in Ukraine.
“We will not have a choice but to move forward with additional more-severe sanctions” if Russia disrupts presidential elections here set for May 25, Obama said outside the White House in Washington.
Putin, he added, “needs to be dissuaded from his current course.”
“Further sanctions will be unavoidable,” Merkel added.
The leaders agreed that their next step would be to impose sectorial sanctions on parts of the Russian economy or military.
Kyiv Post editor Christopher J. Miller can be reached at email@example.com, and on Twitter at @ChristopherJM.
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