Dozens die in Odessa, rebels down Ukraine helicopters

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Dozens die in Odessa, rebels down Ukraine helicopters
DONETSK, UKRAINE - JULY 28: A photojournalist takes photo of destroyed Ukranian tank during the clashes between Ukranian army and pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, Ukraine on 28 July, 2014. (Photo by Soner Kilinc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - JULY 28: Pro-Russian separatists shot the building during the clashes between Ukranian army in Donetsk, Ukraine on 28 July, 2014. Ukranian army capture the region after the clashes. (Photo by Soner Kilinc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - JULY 28: A gas station is destroyed by pro-Russian separatists during the clashes between Ukranian army in Donetsk, Ukraine on 28 July, 2014. Ukranian army capture the region after the clashes. (Photo by Soner Kilinc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - JULY 28: A damaged building is seen after the Ukrainian army seized control of the Ukraine's Sievierodonetsk over pro-Russian seperatists on July 28, 2014. (Photo by Soner Kilinc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - JULY 28: A damaged building is seen after the Ukrainian army seized control of the Ukraine's Sievierodonetsk over pro-Russian seperatists on July 28, 2014. (Photo by Soner Kilinc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - JULY 28: A damaged building is seen after the Ukrainian army seized control of the Ukraine's Sievierodonetsk over pro-Russian seperatists on July 28, 2014. (Photo by Soner Kilinc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - JULY 28: A damaged building is seen after the Ukrainian army seized control of the Ukraine's Sievierodonetsk over pro-Russian seperatists on July 28, 2014. (Photo by Soner Kilinc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A body of a pro-Russian gunman lies in a truck at a checkpoint outside of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, who was killed during a battle between pro-Russian militiamen and Ukrainian forces in the town of Karlivka on May 23, 2014. At least five people were killed in fighting early Friday between pro-Russian militiamen and Ukrainian forces near the eastern city of Donetsk, an AFP photographer said. Fighting in the east has witnessed a bloody resurgence ahead of Sunday's presidential election that the pro-Russian insurgents have vowed to disrupt. AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF (Photo credit should read DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-Russian militiamen take a rest at a checkpoint in Pisky, some 15 km from Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on the road between Donetsk and Krasnoarmiisk, on May 23, 2014. At least five people were killed in fighting early Friday between pro-Russian militiamen and Ukrainian forces near Donetsk, an AFP photographer said. Fighting in the east has witnessed a bloody resurgence ahead of Sunday's presidential election that the pro-Russian insurgents have vowed to disrupt. AFP PHOTO / FABIO BUCCIARELLI (Photo credit should read FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-Russian gunmen stand at a checkpoint outside of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on May 23, 2014. At least five people were killed in fighting early Friday between pro-Russian militiamen and Ukrainian forces near Donetsk, an AFP photographer said. Fighting in the east has witnessed a bloody resurgence ahead of Sunday's presidential election that the pro-Russian insurgents have vowed to disrupt. AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF *** GRAPHIC CONTENT *** (Photo credit should read DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd R) and Swiss President and Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter (R) walk into a hall to attend a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, on May 7, 2014. Putin called on separatists in east Ukraine on Wednesday to postpone a referendum on independence for the mostly Russian-speaking region and said Moscow had withdrawn troops from the border with Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / POOL / SERGEI KARPUKHIN (Photo credit should read SERGEI KARPUKHIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian military helicopter lands at a checkpoint which troops seized in the early morning in the village of Andreevka, 7 kms from the centre of the southern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk, on May 2, 2014. Ukraine's military lost two helicopters and two servicemen on May 2 in a deadly offensive launched just before dawn against pro-Russian rebels holding the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, insurgents and authorities said. AFP PHOTO / VASILY MAXIMOV (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - MAY 2: The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense announced that four pro-Russian separatists, who shot allegedly two Ukrainian helicopters down detained in Donetsk, Ukraine on May 2, 2014. Two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down, killing a pilot and serviceman during military operations against armed pro-Russian separatists in the east of Slavyansk on Friday. (Photo by Ukrainian Ministry of Defense/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A helicopter lands near a tank at a checkpoint seized in the early morning in the village of Andreevka, 7 km from the center of the southern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk, on May 2, 2014. Ukraine's military lost two helicopters and two servicemen on May 2 in a deadly offensive launched just before dawn against pro-Russian rebels holding the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, insurgents and authorities said. AFP PHOTO / VASILY MAXIMOV (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A girlfriend and a relative say their goodbyes to a new volunteer recruit of the Ukrainian army 'Azov' battalion after a military oath ceremony in Kiev and before his contingent heads towards eastern regions, on June 23, 2014. Some 600 new volunteer recruits of the battalion, mainly representatives of the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine, who followed combat training during three weeks will take part in the military operation against armed pro-Russian militants in the east of the country. Ukraine pressed German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Western allies today to help end a pro-Russian uprising that has continued to rage in the industrial east despite Kiev's unilateral ceasefire. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
New volunteer recruits of the Ukrainian army 'Donbass' battalion take a military oath during a ceremony of the National Guard unit near the Novi Petrivtsi village not far from Kiev, on June 23, 2014. Some 600 new volunteer recruits of the battalion, mainly representatives of the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine, who followed combat training during three weeks will take part in the military operation against armed pro-Russian militants in the east of the country. Ukraine pressed German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Western allies today to help end a pro-Russian uprising that has continued to rage in the industrial east despite Kiev's unilateral ceasefire. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
New volunteer recruits of the Ukrainian army 'Donbass' battalion take part in a military oath ceremony of the National Guard near the Novi Petrivtsi village not far from Kiev, on June 23, 2014. Some 600 new volunteer recruits of the battalion, mainly representatives of the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine, who followed combat training during three weeks will take part in the military operation against armed pro-Russian militants in the east of the country. Ukraine pressed German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Western allies today to help end a pro-Russian uprising that has continued to rage in the industrial east despite Kiev's unilateral ceasefire. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
New volunteer recruits of the Ukrainian army 'Azov' battalion take part in a military oath ceremony in Kiev, on June 23, 2014. Some 600 new volunteer recruits of the battalion, mainly representatives of the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine, who followed combat training during three weeks will take part in the military operation against armed pro-Russian militants in the east of the country. Ukraine pressed German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Western allies today to help end a pro-Russian uprising that has continued to rage in the industrial east despite Kiev's unilateral ceasefire. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
A new volunteer recruit of the Ukrainian army 'Donbass' battalion flashes a 'victory sign' during a military oath ceremony of the National Guard near the Novi Petrivtsi village not far from Kiev, on June 23, 2014. Some 600 new volunteer recruits of the battalion, mainly representatives of the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine, who followed combat training during three weeks will take part in the military operation against armed pro-Russian militants in the east of the country. Ukraine pressed German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Western allies today to help end a pro-Russian uprising that has continued to rage in the industrial east despite Kiev's unilateral ceasefire. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
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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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