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Dozens die in Odessa, rebels down Ukraine helicopters

By Maria Tsvetkova

(Reuters) - Dozens of people were killed in a fire and others were shot dead when fighting between pro- and anti-Russian groups broke out on the streets of Odessa on Ukraine's Black Sea coast on Friday, opening a new front in a conflict that has split the country.

In the east, pro-Russian separatists brought down two Ukrainian military helicopters involved in a pre-dawn operation to try to dislodge the militants from their strongholds in the town of Slaviansk.

The separatists said three of their number had been killed, and two civilians, while the defense ministry said two crew from the downed helicopters died and two other servicemen were killed when separatists attacked them on Friday evening.

"Heavy fighting is continuing," the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said. Russian media also said fighting had broken out overnight near the town of Kramatorsk, just south of Slaviansk, but Reuters could not independently confirm the reports.

Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine has been the focus of concern in Western capitals since pro-Russian gunmen overran the region after Moscow annexed mainly Russian Crimea from Ukraine in March. Clashes had also occurred in largely Russian-speaking Odessa, not far from Crimea, but no one had died there before.

Police said three people were shot dead and dozens of others wounded in running battles between people backing Kiev and pro-Russian activists in the port city. Another man died later and a further 31 people were killed when a trade union building was set on fire as fighting continued into the evening, police said.

The total death toll in Odessa later reached 43, Interfax-Ukraine reported.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said Ukrainian forces had fired on civilians from the air in Slaviansk in a "punitive operation" that destroyed an international peace plan. Moscow has tens of thousands of troops massed on the border and claims the right to invade if needed to protect Russian speakers.

The Western-backed government in Kiev said the use of missiles to bring down its helicopters showed Russian forces were already in the town and also that Russian "armed saboteurs" had tried to enter the country overnight, but were pushed back by Ukrainian border troops.

Moscow denies involvement with the rebels and its Security Service said the incursion report was untrue.

Kiev said it was forced to act in eastern Ukraine because Moscow was backing groups there who were "putting civilians in danger, seizing hostages and creating an atmosphere of terror and violence".

Reuters journalists in Slaviansk, the most heavily fortified bastion of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, heard shooting and saw one helicopter opening fire before dawn. Later in the day, the city was largely quiet, with shops shut and armed separatists in control of the streets.

Advancing Ukrainian forces in armored vehicles took up positions in the suburbs, but rebels still controlled most of the town of 130,000.

Acting President Oleksander Turchinov said the operation had been complicated by the rebels' use of human shields and had not progressed as quickly as had been hoped.

SOUND OF CANNON

The growing chaos is overshadowing a presidential election the pro-Western leadership in Kiev is planning for May 25. The rebels are planning a vote on May 11 to seek a mandate to break with Kiev, like one held in Crimea before Moscow took it over.

Moscow moved in on Crimea following the overthrow of Ukraine's pro-Moscow president by protesters angered by his decision to scrap a trade deal with Europe.

The United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on individuals over the Ukraine crisis but they have had limited impact. U.S. President Barack Obama said the next step would be sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy and they would be imposed if Moscow impeded the Ukrainian presidential poll.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, visiting Washington, told a joint news conference with Obama that the elections on May 25 were critical and sectoral sanctions were ready.

The energy and banking sectors are likely targets.

On the square outside city hall in Slaviansk, about 100 people gathered on Friday and said they were appealing to Putin to send troops to help them.

Businesswoman Tamara Voshchanaya said: "What can you think when the sound of cannon makes you jump out of bed, when helicopters are flying over and shooting at our guys?

On the town's southern outskirts, eight Ukrainian armored personnel carriers cut off the road but faced a cordon of local residents shouting at them to go home. Some rebels erected barricades of trees.

Putin's popularity has soared with the seizure of Crimea and talk of restoring Moscow's former empire. This week he restored the Soviet-era tradition of holding a May Day parade on Red Square, where marchers carried banners hailing the acquisition of Ukrainian territory.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Russia's actions in Ukraine had shattered the myth of European security in the post-Cold War era and said NATO allies had increased the danger by failing to meet their defense spending pledges.

The European Union said it was watching events in eastern Ukraine with growing concern. But Kiev is not a member of NATO and Western leaders have made clear they will not fight to defend Ukraine.

HELICOPTERS DOWN

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said two Mi-24 attack helicopters had been shot down by shoulder-launched missiles while on patrol overnight around Slaviansk. Two airmen were killed and others wounded.

Other Ukrainian officials and the separatist leader in Slaviansk said earlier that one airman was taken prisoner.

A third helicopter, an Mi-8 transport aircraft, was also hit and a serviceman wounded, the Defense Ministry said. The SBU security service said this helicopter was carrying medics.

Ukrainian officials said their troops overran rebel checkpoints and Slaviansk was now "tightly encircled".

Putin's spokesman heaped blame on the Ukrainian government, which took power two months ago after pro-Western protests forced president Viktor Yanukovich to flee to Russia.

Saying that Putin had warned before that any "punitive operation" would be a "criminal act", Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that this had now happened in Slaviansk.

"While Russia is making efforts to de-escalate and settle the conflict, the Kiev regime has turned to firing on civilian towns with military aircraft and has begun a punitive operation, effectively destroying the last hope of survival for the Geneva accord," he said, referring to a deal on April 17 signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union.

Under that agreement, separatists were supposed to lay down their arms and vacate the public buildings they have seized in about a dozen towns they have seized across the Russian-speaking east. Since then, however, they have tightened their grip.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry said it persuaded separatists to leave two buildings in the city of Luhansk on Friday.

The SBU said the deadly use by the separatists of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles was evidence that "trained, highly qualified foreign military specialists" were operating in the area "and not local civilians, as the Russian government says, armed only with guns taken from hunting stores".

(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and Elizabeth Piper in Kiev and Matt Robinson in Donetsk; Writing by Alastair Macdonald and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Peter Graff, Giles Elgood and Lisa Shumaker)

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1000|Char. 1000  Char.
jeanawest2007 May 03 2014 at 12:12 AM

Hey Kat4Hat yeah, my parents were from Lviv and yeah my dad served under the Nazi military but why don't you tell the WHOLE STORY! German military stormed all of western Ukraine taking young men and women as prisoners. The women were taken back to Germany to work on farms or work camps and the men were taken to prepare for military placement. My mother was 13 years old and was taken during the middle of the night from her village and my dad was 16 when German soldiers dragged him away from his home. So the question is this... do a 13 and 16 year old stand up to German soldiers and say "No, we don't subscribe to your beliefs and won't fight for your cause!" and get shot thru the head or do they shut their mouths and go quietly???

Another question Kat4Hat... Do you Russians KNOW what the words truth, integrity, keeping your word mean? Dumb question, sorry I asked.

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3 replies
Kletus May 02 2014 at 2:04 PM

Think about how good a Putin free world would be! This guy is a creep. Of course the euro's will soft shoe this thing. They will wake up when Putin is at the door and look to the west and see a complete idiot that is without a clue. When the war starts supply the Ukrain with stingers and wacth how fast the russians bog down. They have no supply system to support the 1st team. The russians will also find an insurrection on thier hands in the crimea at the same time and economic caos at home. Yeah Putin your a real stratagist

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FAMILIA May 02 2014 at 2:02 PM

Just remember if we go to war with russia its not going tl be a war like these little countrys we bully and fight in there lands its going to be missiles, jets nukes on our land also.

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1 reply
Camp Bulldog FAMILIA May 02 2014 at 2:09 PM

The Soviet Army is in no way up the the level of the US Military. Nor is the country.

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1 reply
angelfaery Camp Bulldog May 02 2014 at 2:22 PM

No, they aren't Camp Bulldog --- but they don't need to be. If they get the first nukes off, we're dead regardless of the capability of their Army.

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wolfml1 May 02 2014 at 2:02 PM

This was Putin's plan all along. Europe appeased him so they would not have their Oil cut off, now he'll absorb Ukraine. Then he'll bring back Russian domination to the Eastern European Nations. Putin has not learned why The Soviet Union fell in the first place, the Politburo Bankrupted the Country. Those who don't learn from History are destined to repeat it. Wait until the Russians go through a second Bankruptcy to keep up with the new military build up.

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fallseeker May 02 2014 at 2:01 PM

I am proud of the ukrainian decision to move in and show force and in hopes of claiming back what is the Ukrainian Nation, I believe that what Putin has done thus far is illegeal and I stand with the Ukrains, I don't know what Putin will do, but I do hope that the United Nations and all allies stand together with the Ukrains to put this issue to rest, this is not the cold war error and we should never in this day of age, bring that back to life, Putin is a dictator in many ways and he needs to withdraw his troops and give the Ukrains peace and let them rebuild a democratic nation.

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1 reply
fallseeker fallseeker May 02 2014 at 2:04 PM

The Ukrain Nation has the ability to drill for oil/Gas in their own region and Germany and Europe should explore alternative energy so no one nation has a grip on them because of Oil and Gas It's bad business and no different than being held hostage.

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Steve May 02 2014 at 2:00 PM

If the russians are so 'worried' then perhaps they should tell all the russians to come home to mother russia and stay there.

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tanyourcan May 03 2014 at 1:12 AM

The right wing comments here are beyond stupid... David. Eight million enrolled in Obamacare but how many have paid there first months premium. Check it out but you won't hear it from MSNBC or the other main stream media. Your guy Obama is going down like Nixon. Check out CREEP. There's finally evidence linking the Bengazi cover up to the White House and Obamas reelection weeks later. You have no idea what you don't know just like the liberal press wants you to be.

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markr1157rubio May 02 2014 at 1:59 PM

Russian speaking people in east UKRAIN ... If you want to be Russian ,Then go to Russia ,There you can be protected by vlad,and you should have what you want.Leave ukrain to themselves.Leave the people of Ukrain to vote for their leader next month.Seems easy to me.U.S Nato .Stay out of ukrain, period.Everyone stop the madness.,IT HELPS NO ONE!!!!...Russians,ask your selves,Do you realy want to be a closed up people again With Stalin as your hero .I for one,(and im a nobody) wants you to go back there just when we were becoming so proud to have you as the country you have become before this B.S.no one i know wants WW3.

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1 reply
tmm77625 markr1157rubio May 02 2014 at 3:40 PM

So, basically English speaking people should go back to England to be protected by the queen? I'm sure the Native Americans would agree - so on the boat with you.

Psssst Look up "Kievan Rus" sometime. Ukraine and Russia have been linked for centuries, and let's see when was "Ukraine" an independent country? Basically NEVER. Learn some history.

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Paul May 02 2014 at 1:58 PM

Angela Merkel will not send German troops in the Ukrane to fight Russians. It would look awfully bad after what happened in WWII. Without them the EU is a big paper tiger. Ofcourse they have a community organizer with his side kick Hanoi John drawing red lines. It was the EU that started this mess in Kiev by sending some fascists into that city to make trouble for the elected president of Ukrane.Now some of these great Ukranians are going after the Jews

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4 replies
Ghetto Cat May 02 2014 at 1:57 PM

It is Britney Spears who did it. Her plan all along was to become the most wanted sex symbol, then lower the standards beyond decency. That way her kind can operate freely with mischief. Lol, I overheard NSA saying it.

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1 reply
vinkbear Ghetto Cat May 02 2014 at 2:12 PM

Her and thosed d***ed Kardashians......

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