Pro-Russian rebels take down Ukrainian helicopter, 14 killed
Pro-Russian separatists shot down a Ukrainian army helicopter today, killing 14 soldiers including a general, as government forces pressed ahead with an offensive to crush rebellions in the east swiftly following the election of a new president.
After weeks of accusations from Kiev of Russian involvement in the uprising, a rebel leader in the eastern city of Donetsk acknowledged that some of his fighters who died in the government offensive had been "volunteers" from Russia, saying their bodies were being returned home across the border.
In Kiev, acting president Oleksander Turchinov said the helicopter, which had been carrying supplies in eastern Ukraine, had been brought down by anti-aircraft fire from near the town of Slaviansk, which has been under the control of separatists since early April.
It was one of the heaviest losses inflicted by the separatists on the army in two months of unrest in Ukraine's eastern regions, and followed a fierce assault by government forces in which 50 or so rebels were killed earlier this week.
"I have just received information that terrorists using Russian anti-aircraft missiles shot down our helicopter near Slaviansk. It had been ferrying servicemen for a change of duty," Turchinov told parliament.
The bodies of some of the separatists killed this week when the Ukrainian military tried to regain control of Donetsk international airport were being prepared for return to Russia, the rebel leader said.
In a stark admission that the rebels were being supported by Russian militia fighters, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Denis Pushilin, said: "Those who are volunteers from Russia will be taken to Russia today."
Interior minister Arsen Avakov accused the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin of being behind the airport violence. Weapons collected at the airport after the rebels were forced out by airstrikes and a paratroop assault had been brought in from Russia, he said.
Kiev's leaders have long asserted that Russia, which annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March, has fomented the separatist rebellions in the east of Ukraine with a view to bringing about dismemberment of the country.
Moscow denies this but they also allege that it is failing to stop Russian fighters from crossing the long land border into Ukraine together with truckloads of guns and live ammunition.
The assault launched last Monday was the first time Kiev has unleashed its full military force against the fighters after weeks of restraint and came the day after Ukrainians overwhelmingly elected Petro Poroshenko as president.