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Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine rebels have pulled back to the main city of Donetsk, abandoning several strongholds in the Donetsk region to government forces.
Separatists abandoned the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, as well as some smaller towns, in the north of Donetsk region.
However, they have vowed to continue the fight from Donetsk city, describing the withdrawal as a tactical retreat.
Ukrainian forces launched an offensive this week after a truce broke down.
Ukrainian rebels abandoned several strongholds in the Donetsk region to government forces
The government said in a statement that the rebels had fled after mortar shelling from government forces.
Ukraine’s newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko said the breakthrough was “the beginning of the turning point in the fight against militants”.
“This is not complete victory. But the cleansing of Sloviansk from gangs who are armed to the teeth is of huge symbolic importance,” he said in a statement.
Some rebels were initially quoted as saying they were heading to the nearby city of Kramatorsk.
It later emerged that the pro-Russian fighters had also abandoned their posts there, and were apparently heading south to the regional capital.
Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), said the rebels had abandoned the entire “northern sector”.
The pro-Russian authorities in Donetsk city said rebel fighters had begun to arrive from the north, and urged residents to stay in their homes.
Rebel leaders were quoted as saying the decision to abandon Sloviansk was taken by Igor Strelkov, the military commander of the DPR.
Igor Strelkov, whose real name is Igor Girkin, had pleaded for Russian intervention on Friday saying his men had lost the will to fight.
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Pro-Russian rebels shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter killing all nine people on board near Sloviansk.
The Ukrainian army says the Mi-8 helicopter, used for transporting military cargo, was hit by a rocket shortly after take-off outside the rebel-held city of Sloviansk.
Ukraine’s Mi-8 helicopter, used for transporting military cargo, was hit by a rocket shortly after take-off outside the rebel-held city of Sloviansk
It comes a day after the rebels vowed to observe a ceasefire until Friday, in response to a government peace plan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the week-long truce was not enough.
Vladimir Putin said it should be extended to try to hold “substantive talks” between the Ukrainian government and the separatists.
The rebels have not commented publicly on the Ukrainian military’s claims.
Before Tuesday, the rebels – who continue to hold towns in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk – had shot down at least two Ukrainian army helicopters and a plane.
Earlier in the day, President Vladimir Putin asked the Russian parliament to revoke the right of military intervention in Ukraine.
Two Ukrainian military bases in the eastern region of Luhansk have been taken by separatist rebels as fighting continues near the rebel-held town of Sloviansk.
Separatists seized a border guard base after days of fierce combat, and a National Guard base after an attack which began on Tuesday.
An apparent air attack in Luhansk city on Monday killed a number of civilians.
Meanwhile, in the neighboring Donetsk region, troops are closing in on the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk.
Pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, declared independence after holding referendums last month which were declared illegal by the government in Kiev.
Two Ukrainian military bases in the eastern region of Luhansk have been taken by separatist rebels as fighting continues near the rebel-held town of Sloviansk
The rebellion began amid the turmoil which followed the downfall in February of the elected Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, whose pro-Moscow policies sparked mass street protests in Kiev during the winter.
Reports of casualties in the fighting in Luhansk could not be verified independently.
Ukraine’s border service announced on its website that the personnel in the base of the Luhansk border detachment had been “redeployed to safer places” as a result of sustained attacks by large rebel forces.
The National Guard base came under sustained fire from mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, machine-guns and assault rifles on Tuesday after the soldiers rejected an ultimatum from a large rebel force to surrender, according to a report on the National Guard’s website.
Three soldiers were wounded and all of the base’s vehicles and its headquarters building were destroyed in the fighting, the statement said. The garrison, it added, had now been “redeployed to a different, safe place”.
However, a rebel spokesman told Russia’s Ria-Novosti news agency the soldiers had surrendered and had been allowed to “go home”.
The Russian news website ura.ru quoted a rebel commander as saying there had been “no battle as such” and the soldiers had simply surrendered after spiking some of their weapons.
Investigations are continuing into the attack on the rebel-held regional administrative building in Luhansk on Monday afternoon. Rebels have accused the Ukrainian air force of killing eight civilians in the attack, and graphic video of bodies at the scene has been posted on websites.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that, based on available evidence, “these strikes were the result of non-guided rockets shot from an aircraft. The number of casualties is unknown”.
But the Ukrainian authorities deny their planes were involved and suggest the damage was caused by the rebels themselves.
Ukraine’s interim President, Olexandr Turchynov, said in a statement on Tuesday that the northern part of Donetsk region had been “fully cleared” of separatists and the military had started blocking the border with Russia in the north and east of Luhansk region.
Government forces took the town of Krasnyi Lyman, north-east of Sloviansk, after heavy fighting.
A military helicopter has been shot down by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, near Sloviansk, killing 14 people, outgoing President Oleksandr Turchynov says.
Oleksandr Turchynov said the rebels used a Russian-made anti-aircraft system, and a senior general was among the dead.
The town of Sloviansk has seen fierce fighting between separatists and government forces in recent weeks.
President-elect Petro Poroshenko has vowed to tackle “bandits” in the east.
The military helicopter has been shot down by pro-Russian rebels near Sloviansk, killing 14 people (photo AFP)
The helicopter was hit during heavy fighting between Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, reportedly after it had dropped off troops at a military base.
Oleksandr Turchynov said the 14 dead included Gen. Serhiy Kulchytskiy, head of combat and special training for Ukraine’s National Guard.
It is one of the worst losses of life for government forces in the conflict so far. Last week at least 14 soldiers died in a rebel attack on an army checkpoint near Donetsk, some 80 miles from Sloviansk.
Earlier this month the separatists shot down two army helicopters, also near Sloviansk, killing a pilot and another serviceman.
Petro Poroshenko, a confectionery magnate, won 54.7% of the vote in last Sunday’s presidential election, according to final results announced on Thursday.
After the poll, he called the separatists “terrorists” intent on maintaining a “bandit state”. He vowed to tackle them “in hours”, not months.
The conflict has intensified in recent days. The rebels say they lost up to 100 fighters when they tried to seize Donetsk airport on Monday.
Sloviansk has long been the centre of heavy fighting. Pro-Russia militiamen seized four international monitors there on Monday.
The four – a Dane, an Estonian, a Turk and a Swiss national – are members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, told Russia’s Interfax news agency they were safe and well and could be released soon.
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Pro-Russian militants near the eastern city of Sloviansk have killed four Ukrainian soldiers and shot down an army helicopter, Kiev says.
Kiev says the gunmen used heavy weapons against Ukraine’s units involved in the “anti-terror” operation. Casualties were also reported among the rebels.
The militants are reported to have retreated towards the city centre which is now quiet.
The rebel stronghold remains sealed off by Ukrainian troops.
Pro-Russian militants have seized government buildings in a dozen or more Ukrainian cities in the east.
Four Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and an army helicopter shot down by pro-Russian militants near the eastern city of Sloviansk (photo AFP)
Kiev accuses Moscow of supporting and arming the gunmen – a claim denied by the Kremlin.
Speaking to reporters near Sloviansk, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov accused the militants of trying to ambush government forces on the outskirts of Sloviansk on Monday morning.
He blamed the rebels for using heavy weapons, including mortars.
The Ukrainian military later said that four soldiers had been killed and about 30 injured.
In a statement, the defense ministry confirmed that a helicopter has been shot down near Sloviansk.
The crew of the aircraft survived, largely because the helicopter crashed into a river, the ministry added. It was the third Ukrainian military helicopter to be downed over the city in recent days.
On Sunday, Ukraine’s PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of executing a plan “to destroy Ukraine and its statehood”.
He was speaking two days after dozens were killed in violence in the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa.
“Russia’s aim was to repeat in Odessa what is happening in the east of the country,” he said, insisting Kiev had not lost control of the region.
The clashes on Friday left more than 40 dead, mostly pro-Russian separatists killed in a building fire.
Russia warned on Monday that failure to halt the escalating unrest would threaten peace across Europe.
Despite the latest violence, Ukraine plans to hold a presidential election on May 25.
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Ukraine’s interim PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk has blamed the country’s security services for failing to stop violence in the southern city of Odessa that left more than 40 people dead.
Most of the victims were pro-Russian separatists who died in a fire after barricading themselves in a building.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s comments came as Ukrainian troops surrounded the pro-Russian stronghold of Sloviansk in the east.
He said of the Odessa violence: “I personally blame the security service and law enforcement office for doing nothing to stop this crackdown.”
PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk has blamed Ukraine’s security services for failing to stop Odessa violence that left more than 40 people dead (photo CNBC)
Arseniy Yatsenyuk said: “These security forces are inefficient and they violated the law.”
He said the police chief of the Odessa region had been removed and that the prosecutor’s office had started an investigation.
“The prosecutor’s office is to investigate everyone – starting with the chief of police, his deputies and every single police officer.”
However, Arsniy Yatsenyuk also blamed pro-Russian groups for “provoking the unrest”.
He accused Russia and pro-Russian protesters of orchestrating “real war… to eliminate Ukraine and eliminate Ukrainian independence”.
Ukrainian troops have encircled Sloviansk as the government seeks to wrest control from the separatists.
Several people were reported killed in clashes around Sloviansk on Saturday. The defense ministry said one checkpoint was removed overnight.
Gunfire was also reported overnight in Kostyantynivka and Mariupol as Ukrainian forces tried to reclaim government offices.
There was heavy fighting in the town of Kramatorsk on Saturday, with the interior ministry saying the army had retaken a television tower.
Kiev officials said at least two people were killed in the town, although Russian state television reported 10 deaths.
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The remaining seven international military observers taken captive in eastern Ukraine a week ago have been released.
Five Ukrainian officers captured with the observers, who are linked to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), were also freed.
Pro-Russian separatists in the town of Sloviansk say they released the OSCE observers “without conditions”.
Kiev has resumed military action against the separatists, with fighting reported in some areas.
Russia, accused by the West of being behind the unrest, says it “no longer has any influence” over the separatists.
Pro-Russian separatists in Sloviansk say they released the OSCE observers without conditions (photo Reuters)
Moscow also accused Kiev and the West of responsibility for Friday’s violence in the south-western city of Odessa, which left at least 36 people dead.
Both the OSCE and Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, a leader of the insurgency in the east, confirmed the releases.
“As I promised them, we celebrated my birthday yesterday and they left. As I said, they were my guests,” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov said.
Russia had sent an envoy to negotiate the releases. Vladimir Lukin said he hoped the “voluntary act” by the separatists would be reciprocated by Kiev, adding: “I would very much like military actions to end.”
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman in Moscow, Dmitry Peskov, said: “From now on Russia essentially has lost its influence over these people because it will be impossible to convince them to lay down arms when there’s a direct threat to their lives.”
One of the observers, German Colonel Axel Schneider, said the team had been treated “as good as possible” in what was a “miserable situation”.
Western leaders had condemned the abductions.
On Friday, President Barack Obama again called for the observers to be released, saying their abduction was “inexcusable” and “disgraceful”.
The observers – four Germans, a Dane, a Pole and a Czech – are not part of the main OSCE monitoring mission, which was agreed after long negotiations by Russia, Ukraine and the US.
Ukraine’s government meanwhile confirmed a second day of military operations in the east.
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Sloviansk separatists have shot down two of Ukraine’s army helicopters during an “anti-terror” operation in the eastern city, Kiev says.
Ukraine’s military said a pilot and serviceman were killed and nine rebel checkpoints seized.
Russia says Kiev’s actions “killed the last hope” for a deal agreed last month in Geneva aimed at defusing the crisis.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov also described Ukraine’s operation as “punitive”.
Dmitry Peskov said that contact had been lost with Russian envoy Vladimir Lukin sent to the south-eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s foreign ministry earlier warned that any assaults by Ukraine’s troops in the region would have “catastrophic consequences”, triggering fears of an invasion by Moscow.
Separately, reports are coming that several foreign journalists have been detained in Sloviansk.
Sloviansk separatists have shot down two of Ukraine’s army helicopters during an anti-terror operation (photo Reuters)
Sloviansk is a stronghold for pro-Russian separatists who are exerting increasing control in the region.
In a statement on Friday, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the “active phase” of the operation began at 04:30 local time.
He said interior troops and the National Guard were involved in the operation in the Sloviansk-Kramatorsk region.
“The terrorists opened fire with heavy weapons against Ukrainian special units.
“A real battle with professional mercenaries is going on,” Arsen Avakov said, adding that the separatists were using the tactics of hiding behind civilians in residential buildings.
Russia’s state-run Rossiya 24 TV channel said the city was being “stormed”.
It quoted Sloviansk’s rebel leader Igor Strelkov as saying that the city was completely sealed off.
The fighting appears to be concentrating on the periphery of the city.
However, there were no reports of Ukrainian government troops entering the city itself.
Local residents were later quoted as saying that the situation in the city calmed down but remained tense.
Earlier, Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov reinstated military conscription.
Eastern Ukraine has a large Russian-speaking population and was a stronghold for President Viktor Yanukovych before he was overthrown by pro-Western protesters in February.
The crisis has plunged East-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War ended in the early 1990s.
On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Russia in a phone call to President Vladimir Putin to help free foreign military monitors seized by rebels in Slovianks last week.
For his part, Vladimir Putin reiterated his call for Kiev to withdraw troops from the south-east to open the way for a national dialogue.
Angela Merkel is due to meet President Barack Obama in Washington on Friday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine.
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One of a team of eight European monitors seized in eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk has been released by pro-Russian separatists.
The officer, a Swede, was freed on medical grounds, it has been confirmed.
The monitors were shown to the media on Sunday – a move described as “revolting” by Germany, the native country of four of the team.
The remaining seven are still being held and diplomacy continues to try to secure their freedom.
There is no word about a number of Ukrainian military officers who were seized along with the group.
In eastern Ukraine, gunmen continue to occupy official buildings in a dozen cities, defying the government in Kiev.
Meanwhile, the US and EU are preparing to unveil new sanctions against Russia, accusing it of destabilizing Ukraine.
Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have released one of a team of eight European monitors seized in the flashpoint city of Sloviansk (photo Reuters)
The foreign observers – operating under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) are from Germany, Poland, Sweden, Denmark and the Czech Republic.
They were shown to the media on Sunday, led into Sloviansk town hall by masked gunmen.
German monitor Colonel Axel Schneider, who spoke for the group, stressed they were not NATO officers – contrary to claims made by the separatists – nor armed fighters, but diplomats in uniforms.
“We are not prisoners of war. We are the guests of [self-declared Sloviansk] Mayor [Vyacheslav)] Ponomaryov, and being treated as such.”
Reporters later saw one of the group – accompanied by two men – get into an OSCE vehicle which then drove away.
A spokeswoman for Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told Reuters the Swedish national who was freed “has a mild form of diabetes and so we decided to let him go”.
Germany strongly criticized the group’s appearance before the media.
“The public parading of the OSCE observers and Ukrainian security forces as prisoners is revolting and blatantly hurts the dignity of the victims,” said a statement (in German) from Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier added that Russia had a duty to “influence” the separatists” so that the other members of the mission can be freed as soon as possible
The monitors who were captured are not part of the main OSCE mission in Ukraine, which Moscow agreed to.
They are from individual OSCE countries, invited to Ukraine by the Kiev government.
Earlier, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov said there was the possibility of exchanging the monitors for militia members held by the Kiev government.
Russia, an OSCE member, has pledged to “take all possible steps” to secure the observers’ release.
Kiev has accused the militia of using the Europeans as a “human shield”.
The West has blamed Moscow for fomenting a secessionist revolt in eastern Ukraine after it annexed Crimea last month. Moscow denies the claim.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ukraine must end military operations in the east of the country as part of urgent measures to defuse the crisis.
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Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has re-launched military operations against pro-Russian militants in the east after two men, one a local politician, were found “tortured to death”.
Oleksandr Turchynov said the politician, named as Vladimir Rybak, was found near rebel-held Sloviansk.
“The terrorists who effectively took the whole Donetsk region hostage have now gone too far,” he said.
The move came as US Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting Ukraine.
Ukraine has re-launched military operations against pro-Russian militants in the east after two men were found tortured to death
After meeting Ukrainian leaders in Kiev, Joe Biden called on Russia to “stop talking and start acting” to defuse the Ukraine crisis.
The US and the West accuse Russia of using undercover military to back separatists in eastern Ukraine, where public buildings are occupied in at least nine cities and towns. Russia denies this.
Joe Biden warned Russia that further “provocative behavior” would lead to “greater isolation” and urged Moscow to end its alleged support for pro-Russian militants.
In remarks to Ukrainian parliament, Joe Biden said the US stood with Ukraine’s new leaders against “humiliating threats” – an apparent reference to Russia.
The vice-president called on Moscow to urge the pro-Russian separatists to leave the buildings they are occupying and to abandon checkpoints.
The US is to provide an additional $50 million for political and economic reforms in Ukraine, including $11 million to help run the presidential election due on May 25.
Announcing the decision to resume the military operation Oleksandr Turchynov said in a statement: “I call on the security bodies to resume and carry out successful anti-terrorist measures aimed at defending Ukrainian citizens living in the east of Ukraine against terrorists.”
Vladimir Rybak, whose body was found on Tuesday, was described as a local councilor for the Fatherland party in the nearby town of Horlivka. The other man killed has not yet been publicly identified.
“These crimes are being committed with the full support and connivance of the Russian Federation,” Oleksandr Turchynov said.
The military operation to end the occupation of buildings began on April 16 but was suspended over the Easter period.
Separately, a Ukrainian military surveillance plane was hit by small arms fire over eastern Ukraine, the defense ministry said.
The aircraft, an Antonov AN-30, suffered minor damage over Sloviansk when it was targeted by automatic gunfire, according to the ministry. No-one was hurt and the plane returned safely to Kiev.
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Ukraine’s government has released photos that it says show Russian soldiers among militants holding official buildings in eastern region of the country.
Handed to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) last week, the photos have since been distributed by the US state department.
They are said to show Russian soldiers or paramilitaries in flashpoint towns in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
Russia denies it has military units on the ground in Donetsk.
Pro-Russian militants are holding official buildings in towns and cities in the east.
According to the Ukrainian press release, the photos show the same bearded gunman taking part in militant operations in the Donetsk towns of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk this year, and in operations in Georgia in 2008.
The US State Department has released photos purportedly showing the same bearded Russian soldier in operations in Georgia in 2008 and Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in Ukraine in 2014
However, in the 2014 photos, his greying beard appears to be black while in Georgia six years ago, the slimmer-looking man shown has a reddish beard.
Other unverified photos are said to show the same masked gunman in both Donetsk and Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed last month by Russia.
The Ukrainian press release argues that the photos are proof of a Russian special forces unit operating in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s permanent representative to the International Organizations in Vienna said the photos provided “growing evidence of Russia’s involvement in instigating and co-ordinating the separatist actions that destabilise the situation in the east of Ukraine”.
US state department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said there was “broad unity in the international community about the connection between Russia and some of the armed militants in eastern Ukraine”.
“The photos presented by the Ukrainians last week only further confirm this,” she said, adding that it was a “pivotal period” for Russia to “use their influence to de-escalate the situation in Eastern Ukraine”.
Russia has previously denied it is destabilizing Ukraine, and warned the authorities in Kiev against any use of force against pro-Russian demonstrators.
“There are no Russian units, special services or instructors in the east of Ukraine,” President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday.
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According to Ukrainian officials, gunmen dressed in camouflage clothing have seized a police station in Sloviansk, near the Russian border.
Police said the gang fired shots and used stun grenades to seize the offices in Sloviansk.
Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov called the gunmen “terrorists” and said special forces would repel the attack.
Pro-Russian protesters have taken over government buildings throughout eastern Ukraine. Kiev says the unrest is being orchestrated from Moscow.
Protesters in the eastern city of Donetsk, 80 miles from Sloviansk, have been occupying government buildings for days and demanding a referendum on becoming part of Russia.
A similar move prompted a Russian takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region earlier this year.
Gunmen dressed in camouflage clothing have seized a police station in Sloviansk, near Russian border
The US and EU have put sanctions on Russian and Crimean people they say were connected with the takeover.
Russia has denied responsibility for the protests in eastern Ukraine, but Western nations have expressed concern over a build-up of Russian troops along the border.
Ukraine’s interim PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk visited Donetsk on Friday and attempted to placate anti-government groups by guaranteeing that no restrictions would be put on the use of the Russian language.
The Kiev government had set a deadline of Friday for all occupations to end, but trouble continued in several cities in the east.
Regional police spokesman Ihor Dyomin described how armed men were bused to the police station in Sloviansk.
“Six or seven unknown persons got out. They fired several shots in the air and attempted to storm the police department,” he said.
He added that “people in camouflage uniform” and with weapons” were inside the building.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov promised to deal with the attackers.
“The response will be very tough because there is a difference between protesters and terrorists,” he said in Ukrainian on his Facebook page.
In Donetsk, pro-Russian groups continued to occupy the local government building.