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SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — Pro-Russia insurgents shot down two Ukrainian helicopters today and Ukraine reported many militants killed or wounded as the interim government in Kiev launched its first major offensive against an insurgency that has seized government buildings across the east.
The Kremlin said Kiev’s military move against the insurgents “destroyed” the two-week-old Geneva agreement on cooling Ukraine’s crisis. President Obama said it was obvious to everyone now that the pro-Russia militants were not peaceful protesters and the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session in Ukraine at Russia’s request.
Fighting broke out around dawn near Slovyansk, a city 100 miles from the Russian border that has become the focus of the armed insurgency. Two helicopter crew members were killed in the crashes, both sides said, and the insurgents reported one member killed.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov later said two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and seven wounded in today's clashes and the insurgents suffered significant losses, including many killed or injured. It was not clear if the two referred to the helicopter crew.
“Our security forces are fighting mercenaries of foreign states, terrorists and criminals,” he said in a statement
By early evening, Turchynov said the army controlled all of the checkpoints around Slovyansk, a city of 125,000 people.
One of the helicopters was hit by a surface-to-air missile, the Ukrainian Security Service said, calling it a sophisticated weapon that undercut Russia’s claims the city was simply under the control of armed locals. The agency said its forces were fighting “highly skilled foreign military men” in Slovyansk.
The Russian state television channel Rossia 24 showed one man they said was a wounded helicopter pilot reportedly being helped by pro-Russia forces.
Central Slovyansk still remained in the hands of pro-Russia gunmen, according to AP journalists in the city. Several foreign news crews trying to cover the fighting were detained for several hours today before being released.
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A clash also broke out late today between pro-Russians and government supporters in Odessa, a Black Sea coast port some 550 kilometers (330 miles) from the turmoil in the east. Police said one person died from gunshot fire and other was wounded. Until now, Odessa had remained largely untroubled since the February toppling of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych, which ignited tensions in the east.
Turchynov admitted earlier this week that the central government had lost control of the east, and said some government troops and police there were “either helping or cooperating with terrorist organizations.” He said Ukrainian forces were working to prevent the unrest from spreading to central areas like Odessa.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said the Ukrainian offensive “effectively destroyed the last hope for the implementation of the Geneva agreements” that aimed to defuse the crisis. But Dmitry Peskov said Russia “continues to undertake consistent efforts on de-escalation.”
Putin had warned Ukraine not to move against the insurgents and said it should withdraw its military from the volatile eastern and southern regions.
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, is deeply divided between those in the west who favor closer ties with Europe and many Russian-speakers in the east who look toward Moscow. Ukraine has accused Russia of backing the insurgents who have seized government buildings in at least 10 eastern cities and fears that Moscow is seeking a pretext to invade. Russia has already stationed tens of thousands of troops in areas near the Ukrainian border.
Russian troops backed separatists in Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea then annexed the region in March after a referendum called for secession.
The peace deal in Geneva last month aimed to get those who had seized government buildings in Ukraine to leave and calm down the tensions that have prompted the United States and the European Union to slap Russia with rounds of sanctions.
Russia’s foreign ministry accused Ukraine’s fledging government of using “terrorists” from ultranationalist organizations for today's military operation. It also claimed that Kiev deployed tanks and helicopters that were “conducting missile strikes on protesters,” something that neither side in Ukraine reported.
An Associated Press crew also saw no evidence of missile strikes in Slovyansk.
Russia also cited insurgents in Ukraine as saying that some of the government attackers spoke English — an insinuation that the Ukrainian military was getting some help from the West.
Ukrainian troops met fierce resistance early today but managed to take control of nine checkpoints on the roads around Slovyansk, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said. He called on the insurgents to lay down their arms and release their hostages.
“We are ready to negotiate with protesters and their representatives,” Avakov said. “But for terrorists and armed separatists, there is only punishment.”
Early in the day, Slovyansk appeared quiet but empty and tense and an AP reporter saw six Ukrainian armored vehicles on a road into the city. Black plumes of smoke could be seen on the edge of the city and residents said emergency sirens had sounded at dawn.
Television crews from Sky News and CBS were detained today on the outskirts of Slovyansk. Sky News said in a statement its crew was detained for several hours but is now “safe and well.”
CBS correspondent Clarissa Ward told “CBS This Morning” that she and her crew were stopped by pro-Russia insurgents at a checkpoint just outside Slovyansk, then taken to a nearby town where they were blindfolded tightly with masking tape. They were released several hours later, unharmed except for one man who was beaten.
The spokesman for the military wing of the pro-Russia forces, who would give only his first name, Vladislav, said fighting had broken out at several points around Slovyansk and said Ukrainian troops had made incursions into the city itself.
Peskov said the Kremlin had sent envoy Vladimir Lukin to Ukraine’s southeast to negotiate the release of seven foreign military observers who are among those being held hostage by pro-Russia militia in Slovyansk.
Kiev’s interim government came to power after Yanukovych fled to Russia in February, drummed out by months of anti-government protests. Ukraine plans to hold a new presidential election on May 25.