Russia calls UN meeting after deadly raid in Ukraine
Russia Friday called an emergency UN Security Council meeting after at least seven people were killed in an Ukrainian military assault on the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, the deadliest day for months in the escalating crisis.
A furious Kremlin said the raid was "leading Ukraine towards catastrophe" and pronounced dead a peace deal struck in Geneva last month to ease the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev urged the western-backed leaders in Kiev to "stop killing their citizens," saying the raid was "a sign of criminal helplessness".
In a day of violence that dramatically escalated the Ukraine crisis, one person was also shot dead in the southern port city of Odessa, as pro-Russian militants clashed with supporters of Ukrainian unity.
Ukraine's interim president Oleksandr Turchynov said "many rebels" had been killed in the pre-dawn raid on the eastern town of Slavyansk and confirmed the loss of two military personnel after insurgents shot down two helicopters.
Rebels later said three of their number and two citizens were killed in what they said was a "full-scale attack" and vowed to defend the town, which has become the epicentre of tension in increasingly volatile eastern Ukraine.
As the raid began, an AFP reporter saw a column of armoured vehicles breaching a rebel-held checkpoint just south of Slavyansk and heard explosions and sporadic small arms fire as helicopters circled overhead.
Kiev said its military had taken over nine rebel checkpoints and the army appeared to entrench their positions after the initial assault, tightening their encirclement of the flashpoint town.
The attack seemed to dash hopes of a quick freeing of seven European monitors being held in Slavyansk, with one senior rebel leader saying it would "delay" their release.
Turchynov has already reintroduced conscription in Ukraine, amid fears the Kremlin could send in its estimated 40,000 troops parked on the border.
He has ordered his army on "full combat alert" after admitting authorities are "helpless" to prevent pro-Russian militias extending their grip on more than a dozen towns and cities.
- 'Lay down your arms' -
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page that rebels used shoulder-launched missiles to down the helicopters.
"It's a real battle we are waging against professional mercenaries," he wrote.
"Our demands for the terrorists are simple: release their hostages, lay down their arms, leave administrative buildings and restore the normal functioning of the urban infrastructure."
One Slavyansk resident, Vladimir Pader, told Russian television: "Everyone -- rebels and Slavyansk residents -- is determined not to surrender the city."
The self-proclaimed pro-Russian mayor of the town, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, urged "women, children and pensioners to stay in their homes" and "all armed men to help" combat the assault.
"We will defend the town and we will win," the mayor, dressed in camouflage uniform and wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet, said in a video posted on a local website.
Central Slavyansk itself remained relatively calm after a heavy storm, although rebels parked two previously captured armoured vehicle in front of the town hall where the rebels are holding the seven European OSCE monitors they detained on April 25.
In what they called an "anti-terrorist" operation, the Ukrainian forces had for days encircled the town to prevent the insurgents receiving reinforcements.
Russia's foreign ministry said Ukraine's use of its army was a "crime... leading Ukraine towards catastrophe".
And Russian news agencies quoted Putin's spokesman as saying the raid was "essentially finishing off the last hope for the feasibility of the Geneva accord".
Russia's envoy to the OSCE, Andrei Kelin, said Moscow had urged the pan-European body to "take steps to stop this reprisal raid," according to the ITAR-TASS news agency.
Hopes had been raised in recent days that the seven OSCE hostages in Slavyansk -- four Germans, a Dane, a Czech and a Pole -- might soon be released. But Ukraine has accused the rebels of wanting to use them as human shields.
Kelin said their situation had become "more complicated" and that they had been transferred to a "safe place".
- Russian gas threat -
The West and Kiev say the chaos in eastern Ukraine is being directed by Moscow in a bid to destabilise the former Soviet republic ahead of planned presidential elections on May 25.
The Kremlin denies the charges, but has reserved the right to use troops to protect Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, a region with deep cultural and historical ties to Russia.
The Western response has been to launch sanctions against members of Putin's inner circle and target key firms in a bid to attack Russia's already recession-hit economy.
Moscow has reacted angrily, threatening to retaliate against Western interests in the lucrative energy sector, but has vowed a measured response.
Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told reporters in Warsaw that state-run gas firm could restrict supplies to Ukraine -- and by extension several European countries -- if Kiev did not pre-pay its bill for June by the end of this month.
Kiev is expected to use part of a $17-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, announced on Wednesday, to settle the bill.
The unrest in Ukraine started with peaceful demonstrations in Kiev in November against pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych but has rapidly degenerated into a full-blown global crisis.
After a deadly crackdown on protesters, Yanukovych was forced out in February, sparking fury in Moscow, which responded with a blitz annexation of Crimea.
The pro-Russian rebels, who have been steadily taking more ground in the east, vow to hold their own Crimea-style "referendum" on independence on May 11.
© 2014 AFP