Four Ukrainian troops killed in offensive on Slavyansk as tensions close airport in Donetsk

All flights suspended in and out of Dontesk on Tuesday after four Ukrainian troops were killed and 30 wounded in intense fighting in the rebel-controlled town of Slavyansk on Monday

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 5:15pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 3:07pm

All flights in and out of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk were suspended, airport authorities said on Tuesday, after four Ukrainian troops were killed and 30 wounded in intense fighting around the rebel-held town of Slavyansk on Monday.

No immediate reason was given for the suspension, which comes amid rising tensions in eastern Ukraine as the military battles pro-Russian rebels in control of more than a dozen towns.

The interior ministry said that the pro-Russian gunmen controlling Slavyansk were using civilians as human shields and were shooting from houses, some of which were on fire. It said there were civilian casualties but did not provide a toll.

“There have been deaths,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said at a checkpoint held by troops six kilometres from the gunbattle, which had gone on for nearly two hours.

He did not immediately say what toll each side suffered, but a reporter there saw ambulances rush by carrying eight soldiers commanders said had been wounded.

A Ukrainian military helicopter was shot down near the pro-Russian rebel-controlled eastern town of Slavyansk on Monday, but the pilots survived, the Defence Ministry said.

The helicopter, an Mi-24, which came under fire from a heavy machine gun, crashed into a river. The ministry said in a statement the crew were evacuated to a nearby camp but did not give any detail of their condition.

At least three other helicopters have been shot down by pro-Russian rebels since uprisings began in eastern parts of the country early this year.

Rebels told reporters that fighting was also under way at the southern entrance to the city, where the military was using helicopters and rockets, according to one rebel.

One Ukrainian military commander said the shooting involved automatic small arms and heavy weaponry, believed to be from armoured vehicles the rebels captured last month as well as other big-calibre weapons and mortars.

The commander also said “there are Chechens” with the insurgent gunmen, confirming information from the rebels themselves that they had been reinforced with fighters from Russian-controlled Crimea and Chechnya.

“They are waging a war on us, on our own territory,” Avakov told reporters.

“My mission is to eliminate the terrorists.”

They are waging a war on us, on our own territory. My mission is to eliminate the terrorists
Ukraine's Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov

The minister and the commanders said the Ukrainian troops tightening a perimeter around Slavyansk – the epicentre of the armed insurgency in Ukraine’s east – were avoiding firing on civilians .

“The only tactic is to advance little by little towards the centre of Slavyansk,” where the rebels have barricaded themselves in the town hall and SBU security services building, Avakov said.

The head of Ukraine’s national guard, Stepan Poltorak, also at the checkpoint with Avakov, said “we have bottled them up in the centre” of Slavyansk, but added that “our adversaries are well-trained and well-equipped”.

“They are doing all they can to make us resort to heavy weapons, but we won’t do that in order to spare the civilian population,” he said.

Ukraine’s authorities accuse Russia of controlling the insurgency and covertly providing special forces and arms to fight the military. Moscow denies that, saying the separatist gunmen are independent “self-defence brigades”.