Rebels down Ukraine army plane on eve of Poroshenko’s swearing-in


Pro-Russian separatists shot down a Ukrainian army plane as fighting raged in the eastern town of Slaviansk on Friday, a day before the inauguration of pro-European billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine's president.

Slaviansk has been at the heart of a two-month insurgency in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine by rebels opposed to the overthrow of a Moscow-leaning president and the formation in Kiev of a pro-Western government.

Separatists operating from the grounds of a church in Slaviansk also killed a member of the Ukrainian interior ministry's special forces and seriously wounded two others in a mortar attack on Friday, the ministry said.

The self-appointed mayor of the city, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, said an Antonov An-30 intelligence plane had been shot down.

“The airplane was hit in the center of the city. It happened in front of my own eyes. It was a wonderful sight. The residents who saw it applauded,” Ponomaryov told Reuters by telephone.

A spokesman for Ukraine's “Anti-terrorist operation” or ATO, later confirmed a plane had been shot down but said it was an An-26 transportation plane carrying humanitarian aid.

The Ukrainian army and defense ministry were not available to comment on the reports. A YouTube video purporting to be of the An-30 and posted on several local news websites showed a plane clearly heading downwards in an irregular manner.

A photographer in Slaviansk, a city of 130,000 people in the province of Donetsk bordering Russia, said she saw the plane, visibly on fire, slowly descending but did not see it crash.

Residents said the sounds of shelling reverberated around the city on Friday. One separatist in Slaviansk told Reuters there had been shooting in the city center and that there were casualties, although he did not know how many.

Resident Larissa Akincheva said she stayed away from her work as a store clerk due to the heavy shelling.

“Today I didn't go out at all. I hear the explosions, the shelling. They have been firing all day,” Akincheva, 50, said by telephone. “You could hear the planes circling overhead, I don't know if they were scouting or what.”

FAMILIES FLEEING

Fighting in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk has intensified since Poroshenko's victory in the presidential election on May 25. The vote was called after the flight of Viktor Yanukovich in February after months of protests in Kiev.

Poroshenko was in France on Friday for ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied D-Day landings of World War Two. There, he met world leaders including Russia's Vladimir Putin, who denies charges by Kiev and the West that Moscow is actively supporting the separatists.

There are signs that an increasing number of families are fleeing the violence in the two regions. With the Donetsk airport still closed after heavy fighting almost two weeks ago, people are taking to their cars and driving to the border.

At a small border crossing in Izvaryne about 70 kilometers southeast of Luhansk, a queue of more than forty cars inched along the hot sun-warmed tarmac toward the Russian border.

“It is the only open border post on the southern part of Luhansk,” a young border guard said, without giving his name because he was not authorized to speak to media. He said some four other nearby border posts were closed.

“We decided to leave after the air strike on Luhansk and the clashes around the Mirny border control – that's where we live,” said Elena, 43, who was heading to Crimea on the Black Sea with a daughter and a 12-month-old grandchild. She said mortars had been falling close to her home for 24 hours.

“We are leaving because we cannot live with these Ukrainian killers,” she said.

But not all border posts are safe – late on Thursday, Ukrainian forces fended off an attack on a post some 95 km (60 miles) to the east of Donetsk using air strikes, the border service said in an English-language statement.

It said five Ukrainian personnel were wounded and according to “preliminary information”, 15 separatists had been killed.

“They drove around us in circles shooting for about four or five hours,” said Vadim, an officer at the border post wearing a camouflage T-shirt and cap with the Ukrainian trident on it.

“They didn't ask us to give up, lay down our weapons or make any attempt to communicate at all. They just shot,” he said, adding he hoped reinforcements would arrive “soon”. He said there were 100-150 attackers.

The rebels' two armored personnel carriers, one of which had the name of the separatist formation “Battalion Vostok” painted on it, and a military transport vehicle covered in bullet holes stood abandoned at the checkpoint.

A spokesman for the Vostok Battalion was unavailable for comment. A spokeswoman for the separatists said she had no information about losses from the rebel side in this incident.

Additional reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov in Donetsk and Richard Balmforth and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Writing by Sabina Zawadzki; Editing by Gareth Jones

As Ukraine moves on rebel stronghold, residents live with sound of shelling


Only one of the Ukrainian army checkpoints encircling the separatist stronghold of Slaviansk, where a military operation was in its third day on Thursday, was letting traffic through – most on its way out.

Beyond it, the sporadic boom of heavy artillery shelling in the northern outskirts punctuated an eerie calm in the mostly unscathed center of the sun-drenched town, where residents on bicycles and pushing strollers weaved their way through rebel roadblocks of felled trees, sand bags and rusted cars.

Nobody jumped at the sound.

“We're learning to live with it,” Vlad Cherbanyuk, a car mechanic whose 6-year-old daughter was chasing pigeons under the gaze of a Lenin statue in the central square. She was dolled up in a pink dress for her godmother's birthday.

“Before yesterday, when they pounded all day – it was unbearable. We hid for hours in the cellar of the next-door home. You never know where or when it will fall. Every minute, ' Bam! Bam!' … Now it's quieter.”

The Kiev government, trying to break rebellions among Russian-speakers in the eastern flatlands, says over 300 rebels had been killed in the “anti-terrorist operation” since a new offensive in and around Slaviansk began on Tuesday.

The rebels have denied this, saying losses among the Ukrainian forces exceeded theirs.

With violence continuing in Ukraine's east and tension high between Ukraine and Russia, the crisis is certain to dominate diplomatic exchanges when President-elect Petro Poroshenko meets world leaders this week ahead of his inauguration on Saturday.

But at a hospital a few streets away, a bloodied grey-haired man was wheeled in after being hit by shrapnel in the districts where the fighting raged. He wore civilian clothes, rather than the camouflage favored by the pro-Russian militants.

“We have taken in some 15 people today. All with shrapnel wounds,” said Nina Akurova, a white-coated nurse.

Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said by telephone that a “mopping-up operation” was under way in Semyonovka and Krasniy Liman, two districts to the north of Slaviansk.

While many have fled the besieged town of some 130,000, which sits strategically at the center of the Donbass region at the crossroads of eastern Ukraine's three main regions, the streets were alive with people going about their shopping on Thursday.

SUITCASES SELLING WELL

In spite of the echo of the nearby shelling and store shelves emptied of fresh products such as milk, eggs and meat, store clerks stood behind their glass counters.

“Suitcases and batteries are selling well,” said Tatiana Khavrik, 40, while attending to two armed militia men.

In the heart of the city, many homes are without water after the local utility company said a water main was damaged by the shelling. Two men wheeled containers of water home on a pushcart.

“Our families are here, our graves are here. Where would we go? It's scary for the children, for the elderly, but if we leave, what do we come back to: ruins?” asked Antonina, 55.

“I pray that the politicians will negotiate for peace.”

Poroshenko ordered the resumption of operations by government forces soon after his May 25 election to quell the rebellion in the region, where people were largely unable or unwilling to vote in the poll.

Instead, thousands in the east voted in a makeshift referendum on self-rule organized by rebels, some of whom appealed to Moscow to annex the region as it has Crimea.

Although few of them are locals, the armed militia men are viewed benevolently by many residents who are opposed to the government that came to power after President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled in February after mass protests in Kiev.

“The situation is very tough,” said a moustachioed militant, guarding a roadblock near the hospital who said he was from Luhansk, a city further to the east on the Russian border.

“We are getting reinforcements. The locals have now woken up,” he said.

But with fighting at their doorstep and many out of work, some are wavering in their support for the separatist cause.

“The banks call and ask for payments and when we say, 'There is no work, there's a war here,' They don't care.” said Alexander Frayis, 27, a taxi driver in Slaviansk.

Even though she backed the referendum for self-rule, Larissa Akincheva, 50, said, she was no longer sure.

“Everyday things are worse,” she said. “If at first I thought, 'Yes, everything is great. We will be with Russia.' Then when they said they will 'mop us up', I began thinking maybe peace is better.”

MILITARY OFFENSIVE

The government forces appear to have tightened their grip, clashing with rebels in and around the main industrial hub of Donetsk and Luhansk with loss of life on both sides.

But it is unclear whether the Ukrainian military, backed by attack aircraft, is making real progress against the rebels, who are occupying strategic points in densely populated cities.

Young Ukrainian soldiers checking cars at the heavily manned checkpoint at Bilbasovka leading into Slaviansk appeared jumpy and worn out. The 50-some men were living out of eight armored personnel carriers and tents by the side of the road.

“Next time, I won't go. I'll quit. It's not worth risking my life for 600 hyrvna ($50 monthly salary). We are political chess pieces,” a smoothed-cheeked soldier who like others at the checkpoint said he was from the Western city of Lviv, a stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism in a country increasingly divided between east and west.

“It gets dark at around 10 o'clock, then the music and the disco lights start up,” he said wryly referring to what he said was nightly fire from separatists who appeared to come and go at will in the surrounding fields and villages.

Another soldier complained that their mission was doomed as long as the long and porous border with Russia remained easily crossed by what he believes are volunteer fighters and weapons from Russia.

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 has called on Ukraine to open dialogue with the separatists

Although Kiev has promised to clamp down on traffic over Ukraine's borders with Russia, no signs of additional reinforcement were visible on the Uspensk border crossing in Donetsk Province.

A border official, Sergei Pushkin, refused to comment, but said a newly installed trip wire was just for show.

“It's what you can call, an imitation,” he said.

Additional reporting by Thomas Grove; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Eric Walsh

Fighting rages in eastern Ukraine town, residents flee


Ukrainian government forces battled separatists with artillery and automatic weapons on Wednesday 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” centered 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 nearby fields.

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 sides.

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.

POROSHENKO PLAN

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 mobilize 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 checkpoint.

ANTAGONISM TOWARDS KIEV

A few kilometers 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,” he said.

Slaviansk, a separatist stronghold of 130,000, has strategic value since it sits at the center 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 Kiev.

“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.

Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Donetsk and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Writing by Alissa; de Carbonnel and Richard Balmforth; Editing by Tom Heneghan

Ukraine army targets separatists in new offensive in east


Fighting raged in eastern Ukraine for the second straight day on Tuesday as the army rolled out an offensive against pro-Russia separatists holding the city of Slaviansk, with dead and wounded on both sides, the Ukrainian government said.

Rebels in the town, a fiercely separatist stronghold where a military helicopter was shot down last week killing 14 servicemen, said they had brought down a Su-25 attack aircraft and a helicopter, but this was denied by Ukrainian authorities.

Twelve hours after Kiev's forces launched an overnight military operation in and around Slaviansk, Vladyslav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the Ukrainians, said: “Today we have had two killed and 42 wounded.”

He put the number of dead and wounded on the separatist side at about 300, a figure that could not be independently verified.

“Fighting is continuing”, he told Reuters on Tuesday evening.

Many of the town's women and children have left in recent days as the fighting got worse. One woman described how artillery fire began at dawn.

“I didn't know what that was before but I do now. We counted the number of fires and impacts,” Daria, 27, a resident who said she was trying to leave with her daughter, said by telephone. “War planes were flying over head … We stayed in the basement as much as we could.”

President-elect Petro Poroshenko called for a resumption of military operations by government forces to quell rebellions by pro-Russian militia across the Russian-speaking east after scoring a resounding election victory on May 25.

The Kiev government says the fighting is fomented by Moscow, which opposes its pro-Western course. Kiev also accuses Russia of letting volunteer fighters cross into Ukraine to fight alongside the rebels. Moscow denies this and is urging Ukraine to end military operations and open dialogue with the separatists.

 

LOSS OF LIFE

Ukraine announced on Tuesday that a total of 181 people, including 59 servicemen, had been killed “by terrorist activity” since hostilities broke out in April.

Since government forces resumed their push against the rebels, there have been clashes in an around the main industrial hub of Donetsk and near the border town of Luhansk with loss of life on both sides.

But it is unclear whether the Ukrainian military, backed up by attack aircraft, is making real progress against the rebels, who are occupying strategic points in densely populated cities.

With violence continuing in Ukraine's east and tension high between Ukraine and Russia, the crisis is certain to dominate diplomatic exchanges when the newly-elected Poroshenko meets world leaders this week ahead of his inauguration next Saturday.

He is expected to meet U.S. President Barack Obama and other European leaders in Warsaw on Wednesday and will see Russia's Vladimir Putin at World War Two D-day celebrations in France on Friday, though no formal talks are planned.

The fighting in Slaviansk followed a day-long fire-fight on Monday in Luhansk, a town further to the east on the border with Russia, after an attack by separatists on a border guard camp.

At least two people were killed in the city center of Luhansk, which like Slaviansk is under separatist control, by a blast which rebels said came from a Ukrainian air strike but which the Ukrainians said was caused by a misfire of a heat-seeking missile by the rebels.

“At the present time the active phase of the 'anti-terrorist operation' is going on near Slaviansk. The (separatist) fighters are being blocked. If they refuse to lay down their arms they will be destroyed,” said Seleznyov, a spokesman for the military operation.

“Our job is to establish peace in the region and this we will do,” he said.

“Information that Ukrainian planes and helicopters have been shot down are not true. Yesterday one of the helicopters received holes from small arms fire,” he said.

Ukraine president demands action in east after politician killed


Ukraine's acting president called for the relaunch of an anti-terrorist operation in the east of the country on Tuesday after the body of a local politician from his own party was found showing signs of torture.

Oleksander Turchinov said in a statement that “brutally tortured” bodies had been found near the city of Slaviansk, which is in the hands of pro-Russian militants. One was that of Volodymyr Rybak, a member of Turchinov's Batkivshchyna party, who had recently been abducted by “terrorists.”

“These crimes are being carried out with the full support and indulgence of the Russian Federation,” he said. “I call on the security agencies to relaunch and carry out effective anti-terrorist measures, with the aim of protecting Ukrainian citizens living in eastern Ukraine from terrorists.”

Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Richard Balmforth

U.S. journalist held by east Ukraine militants


Separatists in Ukraine said they were holding an American-Israeli journalist.

Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter for Vice News, is now working for pro-Russian, secessionist militia in the town of Sloviansk, separatists leader Vyacheslav Ponomarev told reporters on Tuesday, the Russian news site gazeta.ru reported.

“Nobody abducted [him], nobody holds [him] hostage, he is now with us,”  Ponomarev was quoted as saying at a news conference that was held amid reports that Ostrovsky had been kidnapped. Ponomarev added that Ostrovsky was now “working, preparing materials.”

Ponomarev said Ostrovsky had Israeli and American passports. A spokesperson for the Vice news channel said in a statement that their organization was aware of the situation and currently in contact with the U.S. State Department, Business Insider reported.

Osktrovsky recently wrote on Twitter that Ponomarev had threatened him.

“Sloviansk pro-Russia ‘mayor’ threatens to throw journalist out for ‘provocative’ question about former mayor being held under guard,” Ostrovsky wrote Monday. His following message — his last from before  Ponomarev’s announcement about Ostrovsky — was: “Now he’s not letting reporters leave the press conference: ‘you’ll go as you came in. In a group.’ That’s one way to guarantee coverage.”

Ukraine has seen violent clashes between pro-Russian protesters and other groups since the ousting in February of the government of former president Viktor Yanukovych in a revolution which erupted over his perceived pro-Russian policies. Ukraine’s interim government has announced new elections scheduled for next month.

On Monday, pro-Russian separatists said their newly-launched television station in Sloviansk would deal “a powerful blow to the biblical matrix and zombie Zionists,” the Ukrainian news site tvplus.dn.ua reported Monday.

Since the revolution erupted in November, Ukraine, which has relatively low levels of anti-Semitic violence, has seen several serious attacks including a stabbing and the attempted torching of two synagogues, most recently last week in Nikolayev.

The Ukrainian government and Russian government officials, as well as their supporters in Ukraine, have exchanged allegations of anti-Semitism.

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