People wait to be rescued on an upper storey ledge during a fire at the trade union building in Odessa. Photo by Reuters
Dozens of people were killed in a fire and others were shot
dead when fighting between pro- and anti-Russian groups broke
out on the streets of Odessa on Ukraine's Black Sea coast on
Friday, opening a new front in a conflict that has split the
In the east, pro-Russian separatists brought down two
Ukrainian military helicopters involved in a pre-dawn
operation to try to dislodge the militants from their
strongholds in the town of Slaviansk.
The separatists said three of their number had been killed,
and two civilians, while the defence ministry said two crew
from the downed helicopters died and two other servicemen
were killed when separatists attacked them on Friday evening.
"Heavy fighting is continuing," the Ukrainian Defence
Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine has been the focus of
concern in Western capitals since pro-Russian gunmen overran
the region after Moscow annexed mainly Russian Crimea from
Ukraine in March. Clashes had also occurred in largely
Russian-speaking Odessa, not far from Crimea, but no one had
died there before.
Police said three people were shot dead and dozens of others
wounded in running battles between people backing Kiev and
pro-Russian activists in the port city. Another man died
later and a further 31 people were killed when a trade union
building was set on fire as fighting continued into the
evening, police said.
An initial police report had given the death toll from the
fire at 38 but the figure was revised.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said Ukrainian forces
had fired on civilians from the air in Slaviansk in a
"punitive operation" that destroyed an international peace
plan. Moscow has tens of thousands of troops massed on the
border and claims the right to invade if needed to protect
The Western-backed government in Kiev said the use of
missiles to bring down its helicopters showed Russian forces
were already in the town and also that Russian "armed
saboteurs" had tried to enter the country overnight, but were
pushed back by Ukrainian border troops.
Moscow denies involvement with the rebels and its Security
Service said the incursion report was untrue.
Kiev said it was forced to act in eastern Ukraine because
Moscow was backing groups there who were "putting civilians
in danger, seizing hostages and creating an atmosphere of
terror and violence".
Reuters journalists in Slaviansk, the most heavily fortified
bastion of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, heard
shooting and saw one helicopter opening fire before dawn.
Later in the day, the city was largely quiet, with shops shut
and armed separatists in control of the streets.
Advancing Ukrainian forces in armoured vehicles took up
positions in the suburbs, but rebels still controlled most of
the town of 130,000.
Acting President Oleksander Turchinov said the operation had
been complicated by the rebels' use of human shields and had
not progressed as quickly as had been hoped.
SOUND OF CANNON
The growing chaos is overshadowing a presidential election
the pro-Western leadership in Kiev is planning for May 25.
The rebels are planning a vote on May 11 to seek a mandate to
break with Kiev, like one held in Crimea before Moscow took
Moscow moved in on Crimea following the overthrow of
Ukraine's pro-Moscow president by protesters angered by his
decision to scrap a trade deal with Europe.
The United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on
individuals over the Ukraine crisis but they have had limited
impact. U.S. President Barack Obama said the next step would
be sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy and they would
be imposed if Moscow impeded the Ukrainian presidential poll.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, visiting Washington, told a
joint news conference with Obama that the elections on May 25
were critical and sectoral sanctions were ready.
The energy and banking sectors are likely targets.
On the square outside city hall in Slaviansk, about 100
people gathered on Friday and said they were appealing to
Putin to send troops to help them.
Businesswoman Tamara Voshchanaya said: "What can you think
when the sound of cannon makes you jump out of bed, when
helicopters are flying over and shooting at our guys?
On the town's southern outskirts, eight Ukrainian armoured
personnel carriers cut off the road but faced a cordon of
local residents shouting at them to go home. Some rebels
erected barricades of trees.
Putin's popularity has soared with the seizure of Crimea and
talk of restoring Moscow's former empire. This week he
restored the Soviet-era tradition of holding a May Day parade
on Red Square, where marchers carried banners hailing the
acquisition of Ukrainian territory.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Russia's actions in
Ukraine had shattered the myth of European security in the
post-Cold War era and said NATO allies had increased the
danger by failing to meet their defence spending pledges.
The European Union said it was watching events in eastern
Ukraine with growing concern. But Kiev is not a member of
NATO and Western leaders have made clear they will not fight
to defend Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry said two Mi-24 attack
helicopters had been shot down by shoulder-launched missiles
while on patrol overnight around Slaviansk. Two airmen were
killed and others wounded.
Other Ukrainian officials and the separatist leader in
Slaviansk said earlier that one airman was taken prisoner.
A third helicopter, an Mi-8 transport aircraft, was also hit
and a serviceman wounded, the Defence Ministry said. The SBU
security service said this helicopter was carrying medics.
Ukrainian officials said their troops overran rebel
checkpoints and Slaviansk was now "tightly encircled".
Putin's spokesman heaped blame on the Ukrainian government,
which took power two months ago after pro-Western protests
forced president Viktor Yanukovich to flee to Russia.
Saying that Putin had warned before that any "punitive
operation" would be a "criminal act", Dmitry Peskov told
Russian news agencies that this had now happened in
"While Russia is making efforts to de-escalate and settle the
conflict, the Kiev regime has turned to firing on civilian
towns with military aircraft and has begun a punitive
operation, effectively destroying the last hope of survival
for the Geneva accord," he said, referring to a deal on April
17 signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the
Under that agreement, separatists were supposed to lay down
their arms and vacate the public buildings they have seized
in about a dozen towns they have seized across the
Russian-speaking east. Since then, however, they have
tightened their grip.
Ukraine's Interior Ministry said it persuaded separatists to
leave two buildings in the city of Luhansk on Friday.
The SBU said the deadly use by the separatists of
shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles was evidence that
"trained, highly qualified foreign military specialists" were
operating in the area "and not local civilians, as the
Russian government says, armed only with guns taken from