KIEV, Ukraine —Ukraine and Russia edged closer to war Friday as forces loyal to the government in Kiev mounted an offensive on a separatist stronghold in eastern Ukraine during which two military helicopters were downed and clashes in the southern port city of Odessa left more than 30 dead after a building was set on fire.
Russian officials warned of “catastrophic consequences,” and President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Kiev’s military operations against the town of Slovyansk, the focus of the pro-Russian insurgency in the east, had “killed the last hope” for the Geneva accord, a deal agreed last month aimed at defusing the Ukraine crisis.
In the worst violence in the Black Sea port of Odessa since the February ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, police said 31 people choked to death or died after leaping from the windows of a blazing trade union building. How the fire started is unclear, but it came after the city saw running battles throughout the day between pro-Kiev and pro-Russian separatists. During the clashes, opposing activists traded Molotov cocktails, leaving at least four dead and dozens wounded.
Dmytro Spivak, a local parliamentarian, told Ukrainian television that the fighting started after pro-Russian separatists ambushed a pro-Kiev march. “It is abundantly clear that the pro-Russian side was very well armed, well organized, and that this action was planned long ago,” he said. He criticized the police for failing to intervene.
As violence erupted in the south of the country, Ukrainian forces resumed an offensive to dislodge rebels from the eastern flashpoint town of Slovyansk. Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, claimed that many pro-Russia rebels had been killed, injured, or arrested in the offensive. He also said that all separatist checkpoints around the city had been captured.
Separatists dismissed the claims, saying they still had control of several checkpoints. And local residents contacted by phone confirmed that separatists were still manning several checkpoints, especially on approaches from the south. The town center was still clear of Ukrainian security forces at dusk.
The town’s self-proclaimed “people’s mayor,” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, acknowledged that the city was being encircled but told news agencies: “The shooting continues, then goes quiet, shots are heard on the streets, helicopters fly over the town now and again.” The separatists say three of their fighters and two civilians have been killed.
Turchynov acknowledged in a statement that the operation against the rebel-held city wasn’t going as quickly as hoped, blaming the difficulties on the fact that Kiev’s forces had to proceed slowly to avoid civilian casualties. He accused the separatists of using civilians as shields.
As the offensive got under way shortly after dawn, separatists made an apparent bid to deter Ukrainian government forces from pressing ahead with their surprise assault by abducting several Western journalists and cameramen. They later released them.
Anti-terrorist units loyal to the government in Kiev launched their attacks mainly to the north and northwest of the town.
Separatists overseen by Russian military intelligence officers responded using a shoulder-launched missile to down a military helicopter, killing the pilot. They also peppered another government helicopter carrying medical staff with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, according to Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov. At least one paramedic was wounded. By midday, the Ukrainian government had confirmed that two of its choppers had been downed.
What the interior minister called the “active phase” of the operation began at 4:30 a.m. local time. He said interior ministry troops and National Guard units were deployed. The operation came just hours after Putin called on Ukraine to withdraw all its forces from the east and south of the country.
The separatist kidnapping of western journalists started with the abduction of Mike Giglio, a former Daily Beast foreign correspondent and now a reporter for the U.S. news site BuzzFeed. He was freed several hours later along with his translator, Olena Glazunova.
An international human rights monitor told The Daily Beast he was captured along with Glazunova at a checkpoint to the south of Slovyansk on the road between Druzhkivkayar and Kostiantynivka, where separatists seized government buildings last week. The Istanbul-based Giglio had only just returned to the region after reporting from eastern Ukraine last month.
A reporter and camera crew from Britain’s Sky News also were seized, say human rights activists.
Award-winning TV reporter Clarissa Ward of CBS News went missing for a time after she posted on her Twitter feed: “Stopped and diverted at Slovyansk checkpoint by pro-Russian activists. They’re waiting for orders- send us to prison or let us proceed.” She was detained but later released in Slovyansk.
When the sweep of Western reporters began there were fears that they would be added to the hostages already being held in the town. But it would appear their use for the separatists was for a more short-term goal: to cause the government to rethink its assault.
This week, the separatist leader in Slovyansk, Soviet soldier-turned-soap-factory-owner Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, said he was holding more than 40 people. They include the town’s mayor; a police chief from the neighboring town of Kramatorsk; two pro-unity activists; and seven members of an official military mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Last month, Ponomaryov’s men seized American reporter Simon Ostrovsky, roughing him up and holding him captive for two days.
In the meantime, separatists in the large eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk have stopped almost all train movements in the region by seizing the regional railway control center.
Ukrainian officials suggested initially that the dawn assault on separatist checkpoints around Slovyansk, a rust-belt industrial town on a tributary of the Donets River an hour’s drive from the Russian border, were a prelude for an all-out effort to retake the town of 130,000. But by mid-morning fighting had died down and residents inside the town contacted by phone said they were only hearing a small amount of automatic gunfire to the north.
“The separatists inside are on the alert but aren’t especially nervous now,” says 45-year-old Dimtry, who owns a store in the center of the town.
Interior minister Avakov said in a statement that government troops met fierce resistance, but had managed to take control of nine checkpoints on roads around Slovyansk. “We are ready to negotiate with protesters and their representatives,” Avakov said. “But for terrorists and armed separatists there is only punishment.”
Ukrainian intelligence officials said their anti-terrorist units were fighting “highly skilled foreign military men” among the separatists.
Fears remain high that the attempted crackdown on Slovyansk might give Putin a pretext to order in his force of more than 40,000 troops amassed on the border.
Yesterday, the Ukrainian government announced a call-up with compulsory conscription ordered for males aged between 18 and 25 years. Russia’s foreign ministry responded, warning any attacks mounted on separatists by Ukraine’s government would have “catastrophic consequences.”
Friday’s Ukrainian attack on the separatists came as a surprise. On Wednesday the country’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov conceded that Kiev’s off-and-on military campaign to restore order and to combat Moscow-backed separatists was hopeless, declaring that Ukrainian security forces had lost control of an industrial region with a population of more than six million abutting the Russian border.
The next few hours and days may tell us whether that remains true or not.
Russian officials, including presidential spokesman Peskov, dubbed the assault today a “reprisal raid”—a description recalling for most Russians Nazi massacres against civilians in World War II.
Peskov told news agencies: “While Russia is making efforts to de-escalate and settle the conflict, the Kiev regime moved combat air forces against peaceful settlements, began a reprisal raid, essentially finishing off the last hope for the feasibility of the Geneva accord.”
His comments would appear to close the Kremlin door on further diplomatic exchanges, heightening fears of Russian intervention.