An armed pro-Russian militiaman from the Vostok (East)
Batallion places flags of other separatist groups on the
Donetsk regional administration building. REUTERS/Maxim
Pro-Russian separatists have shot down a Ukrainian army
helicopter, killing 14 soldiers including a general, as
government forces pressed ahead with an offensive to crush
rebellions in the east swiftly following the election of a new
After weeks of accusations from Kiev of Russian involvement
in the uprising, a rebel leader in the eastern city of
Donetsk acknowledged that some of his fighters who died in
the government offensive had been "volunteers" from Russia,
saying their bodies were being returned across the border.
In Kiev, outgoing acting president Oleksander Turchinov said
the helicopter, which had been carrying supplies in eastern
Ukraine, had been brought down by anti-aircraft fire from
near the town of Slaviansk, which has been under the control
of separatists since early April.
It was one of the heaviest losses suffered by the army during
two months of separatist unrest, and followed a fierce
assault by government forces in which 50 or so rebels were
killed earlier this week.
"I have just received information that terrorists using
Russian anti-aircraft missiles shot down our helicopter near
Slaviansk. It had been ferrying servicemen for a change of
duty," Turchinov told parliament.
The bodies of some of the separatists killed this week when
the Ukrainian military fought to regain control of Donetsk
international airport were being prepared for return to
Russia on Thursday, the rebel leader said.
In an admission that the rebels were being supported by
Russian militia fighters, the leader of the self-proclaimed
Donetsk People's Republic, Denis Pushilin, said: "Those who
are volunteers from Russia will be taken to Russia today."
At Donetsk's Kalinin morgue, where the dead from the violence
were taken, 30 coffins were laid out in rows on Thursday.
"Yes. They're going to Russia," said an orthodox priest, who
was edgy and did not wish to be named.
In another part of the morgue lay a local man, 43-year-old
Mark Zverev, who had also been killed in the airport
fighting. "Europe should know what is happening. He's not a
terrorist. He is a defender of his home, of his people and of
his land," said his mother, clutching his portrait.
Interior minister Arsen Avakov accused the government of
Russian President Vladimir Putin of being behind the airport
violence, which began when rebels seized a terminal the
morning after Ukraine's election. Weapons collected at the
airport after the rebels were forced out by airstrikes and a
paratroop assault had been brought in from Russia, he said.
"These are not our weapons - they were brought from Russia.
Serial numbers, year of production, specific models ... I am
publishing this photograph as proof of the aggression of the
Putin regime," Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.
Kiev's leaders have long asserted that Russia, which annexed
Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March, has fomented the
separatist rebellions in the east of Ukraine with a view to
bringing about dismemberment of the country. Moscow denies it
Ukraine's Defence Minister Mikhailo Koval said on Thursday:
"We have put all our forces and equipment into the
anti-terrorist operation. We have covered the whole state
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West on
Wednesday of pushing Ukraine into "the abyss of fratricidal
war", and reiterated his call for an end to Kiev's offensive.
A separatist fighter, who gave his name only as Varan and
said he was from the breakaway Georgian territory of
Abkhazia, said he believed a total of 33 bodies of those
killed this week would be taken back to Russia.
Wearing combat fatigues, body armour and reflective
sunglasses, Varan told a Reuters correspondent outside
Donetsk morgue that the separatists included fighters from
Chechnya, Moscow and the southern Russian city of Rostov.
"The number of fighters is increasing and I think that the
closer the Ukrainian army gets, the more fighters there will
be because, you know, mobilisation has been called," he said.
People in Donetsk, an industrial city of one million where
the rebels hold the regional administration building and
state security headquarters, said the atmosphere was edgy as
rumours circulated that the army was poised to attack.
Asked if he was worried about gunbattles erupting in the
city, the prime minister in the self-declared separatist
government, Alexander Boroday, said: "A terrorist war may
happen in the town although we are doing everything to stop
that happening so that a peaceful life can continue in the
In front of the provincial administration building, now
headquarters of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic,
armed men from another separatist group, the "Vostok
Battalion", brought heavy lifting machinery to shift
barricades. They said they were clearing space for a quick
exit in case of attack.
The assault launched on Monday was the first time Kiev has
unleashed its full military force against the fighters after
weeks of restraint and came the day after Ukrainians
overwhelmingly elected Petro Poroshenko as president.
Poroshenko, 48, a billionaire confectionary magnate who
became the first Ukrainian since 1991 to win the presidency
outright in a single round of voting, marked his victory by
calling for a swift offensive to crush the rebellions.
Poroshenko will have an opportunity to meet Putin when both
attend commemorations of the 70th anniversary of World War
Two's "D-Day" landings in Normandy on June 6, before
Poroshenko returns to Kiev for his inuaguration. On June 3,
Poroshenko is also expected to meet U.S. President Barack
Obama in Warsaw.
The separatist authorities say those who died on Monday and
Tuesday included a truckload of wounded fighters blasted
apart as they were driven away from the battlefield. The
government said it suffered no losses in the operation, when
its aircraft strafed the airport and paratroops landed to
A separatist leader in another part of the region
acknowledged his men were holding four monitors from the
Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who
went missing in eastern Ukraine on Monday.
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, whose group controls the town of
Slaviansk, said the OSCE had been warned not to travel in the
area, but had sent a four-man team all the same. He said they
would be released soon.
The OSCE sent in about 300 observers to monitor compliance of
an international accord for de-escalating the crisis in
eastern Ukraine, where separatists have seized control of
strategic points in several towns.
In Berlin, talks between Russia, Ukraine and the European
Commission to resolve a gas dispute were to go ahead on
Friday, the Commission said, as time was running out to avert
a threat of Moscow cutting off supplies to Ukraine.
Much of the gas Russia sells to the EU passes through
Ukraine, so the dispute threatens onward supplies to Europe.
Moscow is urging Ukraine to pay part of its outstanding debt
of more than $5 billion for gas supplied since last November.
If Kiev fails to pay, Russia says it will continue supplies
only on conditions of pre-payment. Ukraine says it will not
make any payments until the two sides agree a new price for
gas for 2014.