Violence escalated in southeastern Ukraine on Friday when separatists shot down two army helicopters in the vicinity of Sloviansk and police said three residents of Odessa were shot dead in altercations between supporters and opponents of the government in Kiev.
According to the separatists in Sloviansk, Ukrainian forces killed three of their fighters and two civilians when they moved into the city early Friday morning. Eight armored personnel carriers were seen cutting off the road on the southern outskirts of the town. Interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, who took over after Viktor Yanukovich was deposed in a popular uprising in February, said all rebel checkpoints were retaken later in the day.
Separatists, who demand a referendum to decide on eastern Ukraine’s future political status and sympathize with neighboring Russia, brought down two helicopters earlier in the day. The Kiev government said two helicopter crew had died and seven servicemen were injured. It saw proof of Russian involvement in the use of missiles to shoot down the gunships. Russia denies its troops are on the ground in Ukraine.
Russia earlier denied sending troops into the Crimea when it was clearly occupying the peninsula. It annexed the territory, which had been part of Ukraine since 1954, following a referendum that showed most Crimeans in favor of joining Russia in March.
Before the annexation of the Crimea, the Russian Senate gave President Vladimir Putin permission to use force in the whole of Ukraine in order to protect the lives of Russian citizens and their “compatriots” there.
Russian troops staged exercises on Ukraine’s eastern frontier last week. The NATO alliance estimates the country has some 40,000 soldiers positioned near the border.
In Odessa, Ukraine’s largest Black Sea port and home to many ethnic Russians, fighting broke out when pro-Russian activists attacked supporters of Ukrainian unity marching through the city. Police said paving stones, petrol bombs and other explosive devices were thrown. Dozens were killed later in the day when a trade union building was set on fire.