NEAR SLAVIANSK: Ukrainian government forces battled separatists with artillery and automatic weapons on Wednesday in a second day of fighting in and around Slaviansk, forcing many residents to flee.
The Kiev government, trying to break rebellions by pro-Russia militias, said over 300 rebels had been killed in the past 24 hours in the “anti-terrorist operation” centred on the eastern town, a strategically located separatist stronghold.
Rebels denied this, saying losses among the Ukrainian forces during an offensive begun on Tuesday exceeded theirs.
At an army checkpoint on the edge of town, heavy artillery shelling could be heard while a plume of black smoke rose above the outskirts. Automatic gunfire rattled out from nearby fields.
Families fled the fighting through a barbed-wire checkpoint with only as much as they could carry. “It’s a mess,” sobbed a young woman as she clutched her husband’s arm. “It’s war.”
Andrei Bander left with his four-year-old daughter. “We are going. We don’t even know where. We will head to Russia though because it’s clear we need to leave Ukraine,” he said, waiting for a taxi in a small a no-man’s land between the two sides.
In support for the Ukrainian forces, acting President Oleksander Turchinov and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov paid an impromptu visit, clad in flak jackets, to another army roadblock on the far side of the encircled town on Wednesday.
A spokesman for government forces said two soldiers had been killed and 45 wounded since Kiev launched its offensive near Slaviansk with aircraft, helicopters and artillery.
Separatists controlling the town since early April denied the government’s casualty figures and claimed to have shot down an army helicopter - something denied in turn by Kiev.
“Losses to the Ukrainian side were more than ours,” said Aleksander Boroday, “prime minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. He said nine had died and 15 were injured among separatists forces in Slaviansk.
At a news conference in the regional capital Donetsk, he said separatists would mobilise forces and train volunteers to fight in Slaviansk and defend their positions in Donetsk.
President-elect Petro Poroshenko ordered the resumption of operations by government forces soon after his May 25 election to quell the rebellion by militia in the Russian-speaking, where people were largely unable or unwilling to vote in the poll.
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