ODESSA/SLAVIANSK, Ukraine: Pro-Russian rebels shot down a Ukrainian helicopter in fierce fighting near the eastern town of Slaviansk Monday, and Kiev drafted police special forces to the southwestern port city of Odessa to halt a feared westward spread of rebellion.
Ukraine said the Odessa force, based on “civil activists,” would replace local police who had failed to tackle rebel actions at the weekend. Its dispatch was a clear signal from Kiev that, while tackling rebellion in the east, it would vigorously resist any sign of a slide to a broader civil war.
Odessa, with its ethnic mix from Russians to Ukrainians, Georgians to Tatars a cultural contrast to the pro-Russian east, was quiet Monday. Ukrainian flags flew at half mast for funerals of some of the dozens killed in clashes Friday.
But in the east, fighting intensified around the pro-Russian stronghold of Slaviansk, a city of 118,000, where rebel fighters ambushed Ukrainian forces early in the day.
The Interior Ministry said five Ukrainian paramilitary police were killed. Separatists said four of their number had also been killed.
The sound of an air-raid siren could be heard in the center of Slaviansk and a church bell rang in the main square.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry called on Kiev to “stop the bloodshed, withdraw forces and finally sit down at the negotiating table.”
It also published an 80-page report detailing “widespread and gross human rights violations” in Ukraine over the past six months for which it blamed the new government and its Western allies.
Russia denies Ukrainian and Western accusations it is seeking to undermine the country of 45 million and using special forces to lead the insurgency across the border, as it did before annexing Crimea in March.
The self-declared pro-Russian Mayor of Slaviansk Vyacheslav Ponomarev told Reuters by telephone: “[The Ukrainians] are reinforcing, deploying ever more forces here. Recently there was a parachute drop … For us, they are not military, but fascists.”
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said rebels had shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter, the fourth since Friday, with heavy machine-gun fire. The helicopter crashed into a river and the crew were rescued alive, but there were no details of their condition.
Diana, 15, who lives near Slaviansk in a single-story house at the strategic junction of the road between Kharkiv and Rostov, said she saw Ukrainian tanks fire on rebel cars. A fuel tank at a gas station exploded and fighters fired at houses.
“My father was injured in the head by glass splinters. It’s terrifying. There’s just nowhere to live now. Everything is broken, our television, our computer; they shot at our car.”
The violence in Odessa marked a watershed for Ukraine.
It increased fears that trouble could spread to the capital in the approach to Friday’s celebrations of the Soviet victory in World War II, an event that could kindle tensions over Kiev’s relations with its former communist masters in Moscow.
Over 40 people were killed in Friday’s clashes, the worst since pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich fled to Moscow in February amid protests by Ukrainians demanding closer ties to Europe. Most were pro-Russians killed when the building they occupied was set ablaze by Molotov cocktails. It is not clear who started the fire, but Moscow accuses Kiev of inciting violence.
Hundreds besieged a police station Sunday where fellow pro-Moscow activists had been held since the shooting and fighting that led up to the house blaze. Police then freed 67 of them, infuriating Kiev.
“The police in Odessa acted outrageously,” Interior Minister Arseny Avakov wrote on his Facebook page. “The ‘honor of the uniform’ will offer no cover.”
He said he had sent the newly formed Kiev-1 force of “civil activists” to Odessa following the sacking of the entire Odessa force leadership. The units Avakov referred to emerged partly from the uprising against Yanukovich early this year.
That could fuel anger among the government’s opponents, who accuse it of promoting “fascist” militant groups, such as Right Sector, which took part in the Kiev uprising over the winter.
Loss of control of Odessa would be a huge economic and political blow for Ukraine, a country the size of France that borders several NATO countries and harbors aspirations to join the military alliance, a primary source of concern for the Kremlin.
Diplomacy continued over the weekend. Germany said Sunday it was pressing for a second meeting in Geneva to bring Russia and Ukraine together with the United States and European Union.
Moscow and Kiev accuse each other of wrecking an earlier accord on April 17.
Berlin said Monday it was doing what it could to make sure a presidential election planned for May 25 went ahead.
“The election would be not just a means for stabilization but also a strong signal for a better future for Ukraine,” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said.
He said a referendum planned by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern city of Donetsk, where rebels have proclaimed a “Donetsk People’s Republic,” would increase tensions.
Certainly, failure by Kiev authorities to conduct the election in rebel-controlled eastern cities would give Moscow grounds to question the legitimacy of any government emerging, just as it challenges the present administration.