Ukraine moves special forces to Odessa

Ukraine said the Odessa force would replace local police who had failed to tackle rebel actions.

FILE:Ukraine said the Odessa force would replace local police who had failed to tackle rebel actions. Picture: AFP.

ODESSA/SLAVIANSK Ukraine - Pro-Russian rebels shot down a Ukrainian helicopter in fierce fighting near the eastern town of Slaviansk on 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 on Monday. Ukrainian flags flew at half-staff for funerals of some of the dozens killed in clashes on 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 paramilitary police were killed. Separatists said four of their number had also died.

The sound of an air-raid siren could be heard in the centre of Slaviansk, and a church bell rang in the main square.

The self-declared pro-Russian mayor of Slaviansk Vyacheslav Ponomarev told Reuters by telephone: "(The Ukrainians) are deploying ever more forces here. Recently there was a parachute drop. ... For us, they are not military, but fascists."

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 charges it is seeking to undermine the country of 45 million and using special forces to lead the insurgency, as it did before annexing Crimea in March.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he feared neither side could now control forces unleashed.

"I'm convinced we are struggling against a situation that has taken on a dynamic of its own. There are groups in eastern Ukraine that are not listening to either Kiev ... or Moscow."

NATO's top military commander, General Philip Breedlove, said on Monday he did not think regular Russian troops would enter eastern Ukraine, saying Moscow could achieve its goals through other means.

Breedlove told a defence conference in the Canadian capital, Ottawa the most likely course of action was that Russian President Vladimir Putin "will continue doing what he's doing, discrediting the (Ukrainian) government, creating unrest, trying to set the stage for a separatist movement to ensure Moscow maintained a hold on eastern Ukraine."

Ukraine's Defence Ministry said rebels had shot down a military helicopter, the fourth since Friday, with heavy machine-gun fire. The helicopter crashed into a river and the crew was rescued but there were no details of their condition.

Over 40 people were killed in Friday's clashes, the worst since pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich fled to Moscow in February during protests by Ukrainians demanding closer ties to Europe. Most were pro-Russians killed when the building they occupied was set ablaze by petrol bombs.

It is not clear who started the fire, but Moscow accuses Kiev of inciting violence.

On Sunday, hundreds besieged a police station where fellow pro-Moscow activists were held after street fighting that led up to the house blaze. Police freed 67 of them, infuriating Kiev.


Loss of control of Odessa would be a huge economic and political blow for Ukraine, a country that borders several NATO members and aspires to join the military alliance, a primary source of concern for the Kremlin.

A city of a million people, with a history as the cosmopolitan southern gateway for the tsars' empire, Odessa has two ports, including an oil terminal, and is a transport hub.

Many on the city's streets were shocked by the violence.

The chant "Odessa is a Russian city!" was heard at pro-Russian demonstrations through the weekend.

Germany said on 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 17 April.

Berlin said it was doing what it could to make sure a presidential election planned for 25 May went ahead.

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.