Explosions, gunships rouse Slavyansk

2014-05-02 18:27
Ukrainian soldiers stand guard and speak with local people at a road leading into Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine. (Darko Vojinovic, AP)

Ukrainian soldiers stand guard and speak with local people at a road leading into Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine. (Darko Vojinovic, AP)

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Slavyansk - Loud detonations followed by the clatter of ground-skimming helicopter gunships heralded what the rebels controlling Slavyansk had been warning about for days: a frontal assault by the Ukrainian military.

Armoured vehicles and scores of paratroopers quickly moved in, sweeping aside nine outlying insurgent roadblocks and taking up position just at the entry to the town.

But the pro-Russian rebels struck back with unexpected expertise, shooting down two of the Mi-24 helicopters and killing two servicemen on board.

Others set fire to tyres piled up at roadblocks to cloak their retreat, sending dark smoke spewing into the sky.

And, while Slavyansk's church rang its bells under a flapping Russian flag, locals of all ages rushed to build barricades on the streets.

Five trucks were parked across the road leading to the town hall, which is serving as the rebels' headquarters. Side streets were strewn with boarding, planks, branches and furniture.

"We are ready to block the way with our bodies if we need to," said one woman.

The rebels had also parked two armoured personnel carriers they captured last month close to the town hall.

As the morning faded, both sides consolidated their positions. No more clashes took place.

But a storm rolled in over the town - thunder and dark clouds mimicking on a grander scale the human turmoil of hours earlier.

Slavyansk's self-appointed rebel mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, issued a video message on a local website, urging women and children to stay indoors, and for "all armed men to help" combat the assault.

"We will defend the town and we will win," said the mayor, dressed in camouflage uniform and wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet.

Another rebel leader, Anatoly Khmelevoy, told AFP that, "for now", there were no losses on the insurgents' side.

However, a spokesperson for the rebels later told AFP at least one insurgent had been killed and that the number of dead and wounded was likely to rise.

The brief and rough abductions of three teams of Western journalists, working for CBS, Sky News and the online outlet Buzzfeed, were evidence of frayed nerves among the rebels.

Residents were also on edge. Some complained they could no longer find bread, as most shops and banks were shuttered on Friday.

But much of the sentiment expressed was pro-Russian.

One local woman declared that, "after what they [the Ukrainian military] have done today, there is only one thing to do: join Russia".

Read more on:    russia  |  ukraine

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