Pro-Russia forces shot down two Ukrainian helicopters Friday as Ukraine launched its first major offensive against an insurgency that has seized government buildings in the east. The Kremlin said Kyiv's move against the insurgents "destroyed" hopes for peace in the region.
Fighting broke out around dawn near Slovyansk, a city 160 kilometres (100 miles) from the Russian border that has become the focus of the armed insurgency against Ukraine's interim government. Two helicopter crew members were killed in the crashes, both sides said, and pro-Russia militiaman was reported killed.
One of the helicopters was hit by a surface-to-air missile, the Ukrainian Security Service said, adding that the sophisticated weapon undercut Russia's claims the city was simply under the control of armed locals. The service said its forces were fighting "highly skilled foreign military men" in Slovyansk.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said the offensive "effectively destroyed the last hope for the implementation of the Geneva agreements" that aimed to defuse the crisis. A day earlier Putin warned Ukraine not to move against the insurgents and said it should withdraw its military from eastern and southern regions.
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, is deeply divided between those in the west who favour 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 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 in March, then annexed the region after a referendum called for secession.
A 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.
Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, admitted earlier this week that the central government had lost control of the east, and also said some government troops and police there were "either helping or co-operating with terrorist organizations." He said Ukraine should focus on preventing the instability from spreading to other parts of the country.
Russia's foreign ministry accused Ukraine's fledging government of using "terrorists" from ultranationalist organizations for the military operation. It also claimed that Kyiv 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.