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SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — The Ukrainian military launched an offensive against separatist forces for control of a besieged eastern city on Friday, while clashes between pro and anti-government activists in the previously calm southern port of Odessa led to a fire that police said killed 31 people.
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said many insurgents were killed or wounded in the eastern offensive.
Both sides said two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down by pro-Russia militants near the separatist-held city of Slovyansk, killing two crew members.
Authorities said seven others also died: three separatist gunmen, two soldiers, and two civilians.
By nightfall, Ukrainian troops and armored personnel carriers blocked all major roads into Slovyansk, but the central part of the city remained in the hands of pro-Russia gunmen, according to Associated Press journalists inside.
The Ukrainian Security Service said one helicopter was downed with a surface-to-air missile, adding that the sophisticated weapon undercut Russia’s claims the city of 125,000 people was simply under the control of armed locals.
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Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s border.
Kiev claims Moscow is preparing to invade and that it is fomenting the unrest in the east, where insurgents have seized government buildings in about a dozen cities and towns.
The Kremlin denies the allegations, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned that Moscow would respond to attacks on its citizens or interests in the east.
In Washington, President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Russia that it will face additional sanctions against key sectors of its economy if Moscow disrupts Ukraine’s plan to hold elections on May 25.
The election is to choose a successor to Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russia leader who resigned in the face of unrelenting protests and whose ouster has provoked the Ukraine crisis.
U.S. officials said a next round of sanctions could affect vital parts of the Russian economy such as energy, defense, financial services, and engineering.
The United States and the European Union already have imposed several rounds of sanctions on specific Russians, including some on members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, and several companies.
Moscow thus far has largely shrugged off the penalties.
Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a forceful case Friday for European members of NATO to increase their military spending, calling Russia’s intervention in Ukraine a “clarifying moment” for the alliance.
“In recent years, one of the biggest obstacles to alliance investment has been a sense that the end of the Cold War ushered in an end of history, an end to insecurity, at least in Europe, and the end of aggression by nation-states,” Mr. Hagel said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “But Russia’s actions in Ukraine shatter that myth.”
NATO’s Eastern European members have said they are increasingly nervous about Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the alliance’s ability to counter them.
Unlike other parts of eastern Ukraine, Odessa had been largely tranquil since the February toppling of Mr. Yanukovych, who fled to Russia.
But clashes erupted Friday between pro-Russians and government supporters in the key port on the Black Sea coast, located 330 miles from the turmoil in the east.
Police said the deadly fire broke out in a trade union building, but they did not give details on how it started.
Earlier, police said at least three people had died in a clash between the two sides in the city of 1 million.
According to Ukrainian news reports, the pro-Kiev demonstrators broke up an encampment of Moscow supporters outside the trade union building. The latter took refuge in the building, which then caught on fire.
Odessa police spokesman Volodymyr Shasbliyenko told the Associated Press that the fire apparently was caused by Molotov cocktails. He had no further details or identities of the victims.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the fatal fire was “yet another manifestation of the criminal irresponsibility of the Kiev authorities.
A spokesman for Mr. Putin said the Ukrainian offensive “effectively destroyed the last hope for the implementation of the Geneva agreement” of two weeks ago that aimed to defuse the crisis.
But Dmitry Peskov also said Russia “continues to undertake consistent efforts on de-escalation.”
The fighting in Slovyansk, a city about 100 miles from the Russian border, broke out around dawn.
Mr. Turchynov said some government troops and police in eastern Ukraine were “either helping or cooperating with terrorist organizations.”
He said Ukrainian forces were working to prevent the unrest from spreading to other areas.
At Russia’s request, the U.N. Security Council met in an emergency session Friday on Ukraine.
Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin demanded a “swift halt of all violence,” but Western powers scoffed at his country’s indignation.
“Russia ... has released bands of thugs on Ukraine ... and is suddenly discovering this mixture might escape its control,” French ambassador Gerard Araud said.
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, is torn between those in the west who favor closer ties with Europe and many Russian-speakers in the east who look toward Moscow.