Sloyvansk, 5 May-2014, WSJ: Heavy fighting erupted Monday in the pro-Russian separatist stronghold of Sloyvansk in eastern Ukraine, with authorities reporting four Ukrainian soldiers dead and a rebel commander telling local media that more than 20 militants had possibly been killed.
Accounts from both sides suggested the Ukrainian military was pushing further into the volatile city than it has before, with the confrontation marking the most sustained fighting since Kiev launched its operation to quell the insurgency in eastern Ukraine. It comes following a weekend of escalating clashes as the conflict moves into a more dangerous phase.
On Monday morning, Ukrainian forces met with strong resistance from a group of about 800 pro-Russian fighters armed with large caliber weapons, mortars and other equipment, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said.
The Interior Ministry said four Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and 30 injured, and an untold number of militant fighters had been wounded in the operation. A separatist spokesman told the Interfax news agency that there had been a large number of dead among the rebel fighters following pitched battles in various parts of the city.
“The fighting is still under way. We have managed to stop the enemy from advancing deep into the city but it was with great difficulty. We have a lot of victims—maybe more than 20 people,” he was quoted as saying.
He said a gas station exploded after being hit by gunfire, sending up a large fireball that was visible from all around the city. Ukraine’s defense ministry said a Mi-24 helicopter had been shot down by heavy machine gun fire and had crashed into a river but the pilots were unharmed.
The ministry also said that a pilot taken captive by militants during heavy fighting last week in which two helicopters were shot down had been rescued during Monday’s fighting. It said it had disrupted an effort by rebel fighters to convert railway coal carriers into armored train cars.
Mr. Avakov said the operation was moving forward slowly as to avoid civilian casualties, although his ministry said civilians had been hurt in the fighting, blaming separatists for using them as human shields.
Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry said an armed pro-Russian mob overran a police station in the city of Slovyanoserbsky in the neighboring Luhansk region and beat up the police chief.
In a phone call Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, reiterated the government’s stance that it was prepared to negotiate with pro-Russian protesters seeking greater autonomy but that discussions with “someone who picks up and uses weapons against citizens of Ukraine” would be impossible.
He stressed that the military operation was only targeting those who had taken up arms, according to a statement on the presidential website.
The combat comes after the deadliest day of fighting on Friday when 46 people were killed in rioting and a deadly fire in the Black Sea port city of Odessa.
The Ukrainian government and the West have repeatedly blamed Russia for instigating the unrest and of organizing parts of the rebellion by sending in highly trained Russian military-intelligence officers. Moscow has denied playing any role in the uprising.
Ukraine is seeking to regain control in the east ahead of presidential elections scheduled for May 25, as pro-Russian militants plan a May 11 referendum in areas under their control on the question of the region’s future.
Outlining his push in a contribution for German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he emphasized that it is crucial to hold presidential elections in Ukraine on May 25 and that all conflicting parties must negotiate a reform of the country’s constitution.
“It might help to realize that Russia and Ukraine will doubtlessly lose most if it is still not possible to change tack at the moment,” Mr. Steinmeier wrote in a piece to be published in Tuesday’s edition.
Steffen Seibert, spokesman for the chancellor, said she backed Mr. Steinmeier’s proposal and that such a meeting should strengthen the OSCE in its mediating mission.
A previous agreement reached in Geneva never got off the ground as the violence escalated.