Ukrainian servicemen patrol at a checkpoint outside the
eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Ukrainian government forces battled separatists with
artillery and automatic weapons in a second day of fighting in
and around Slaviansk, forcing many residents to flee.
The Kiev government, trying to break rebellions by pro-Russia
militias, said over 300 rebels had been killed in the past 24
hours in the "anti-terrorist operation" centred on the
eastern town, a strategically located separatist stronghold.
Rebels denied this, saying losses among the Ukrainian forces
during an offensive begun on Tuesday exceeded theirs.
At an army checkpoint on the edge of town, heavy artillery
shelling could be heard while a plume of black smoke rose
above the outskirts. Automatic gunfire rattled out from
Families fled the fighting through a barbed-wire checkpoint
with only as much as they could carry. "It's a mess," sobbed
a young woman as she clutched her husband's arm. "It's war."
Andrei Bander left with his four-year-old daughter. "We are
going. We don't even know where. We will head to Russia
though because it's clear we need to leave Ukraine," he said,
waiting for a taxi in a small a no-man's land between the two
In support for the Ukrainian forces, acting President
Oleksander Turchinov and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov paid
an impromptu visit, clad in flak jackets, to another army
roadblock on the far side of the encircled town on Wednesday.
A spokesman for government forces said two soldiers had been
killed and 45 wounded since Kiev launched its offensive near
Slaviansk with aircraft, helicopters and artillery.
Separatists controlling the town since early April denied the
government's casualty figures and claimed to have shot down
an army helicopter - something denied in turn by Kiev.
"Losses to the Ukrainian side were more than ours," said
Aleksander Boroday, "prime minister" of the self-proclaimed
Donetsk People's Republic. He said nine had died and 15 were
injured among separatists forces in Slaviansk.
At a news conference in the regional capital Donetsk, he said
separatists would mobilise forces and train volunteers to
fight in Slaviansk and defend their positions in Donetsk.
President-elect Petro Poroshenko ordered the resumption of
operations by government forces soon after his May 25
election to quell the rebellion by militia in the
Russian-speaking, where people were largely unable or
unwilling to vote in the poll.
In Warsaw, where he met U.S. President Barack Obama, he said
he would unveil a plan for a "peaceful resolution" of the
situation in the east after his inauguration next Saturday.
Kiev says the fighting was stirred up by Moscow, which
opposes its pro-Western course, and accuses Russia of letting
volunteers cross into Ukraine to fight alongside the rebels.
Moscow denies this and renewed calls on Wednesday for Ukraine
to open dialogue with the separatists. But the separatists
look to Moscow for help.
"When is (Russian President Vladimir) Putin going to come
help us?" asked a young man in fatigues at a rebel
ANTAGONISM TOWARDS KIEV
A few kilometres away, a man from central Ukraine said he
belonged to a separatist group called the Russian Orthodox
army. "This is our land. We will stand here until the last,"
Slaviansk, a separatist stronghold of 130,000, has strategic
value since it sits at the centre of the Donbass region at
the cross-roads of eastern Ukraine's three main regions.
Government forces appeared to be tightening their grip but it
was too soon to predict the outcome. A government camp in
Luhansk, further to the east on the Russian border, was
evacuated after an attack by separatists on Monday.
The military operation has hardened antagonism against the
present government that came to power when President Viktor
Yanokovich was toppled in February after mass protests in
"Our Ukrainian army is not protecting us, instead it is
attacking us. Thanks to them I have to flee my own land,"
said Larissa Zhuratova, a Slaviansk resident piling onto a
bus full of refugees bound for Moscow.
Men were mostly not being let through the army checkpoint.
At a run-down dormitory in a village some 100 km south of the
fighting, an eight-year-old refugee mimicked the sound of
shelling. "It went ba-boom. We sat in the bathtub," little
Vitaly said, playing with toys gifted by local residents.