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Ukraine Launches Military Operation Against Separatists

Ukrainian soldiers stay near a checkpoint seized by them not far of Slovyansk, Ukraine, on Friday. Ukrainian officials say two helicopters were shot down during an "anti-terror" operation against pro-Russia separatists.
Roman Pilipey EPA/Landov
Ukrainian soldiers stay near a checkpoint seized by them not far of Slovyansk, Ukraine, on Friday. Ukrainian officials say two helicopters were shot down during an "anti-terror" operation against pro-Russia separatists.

Ukrainian forces have launched what appears to be a major operation to rout pro-Russia forces from occupied government buildings in the country's east. Two helicopters were shot down by separatists, killing the pilots, both sides report.

The move is being described by Ukraine as an "anti-terror" operation in the Slovyansk-Kramatorsk region.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, reporting from near Kramatorsk, says pro-Russia gunmen stationed at a checkpoint leading to Slovyansk appear "very nervous."

Speaking with Morning Edition, Soraya says "they definitely fear this is not limited to Slovyansk."

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement that the "active phase" of the operation began at 04:30 local time.

"A real battle with professional mercenaries is going on," Avakov said. Interior troops and the National Guard were involved, he said.

Russia's state-run Rossiya 24 TV channel said the city was being "stormed," according to the BBC.

Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the pro-Russia militants, said one of their men was killed and another injured. She offered no further details, according to The Associated Press. Another spokesman for the separatists said fighting had broken out at several points around the city and that government armored vehicles were seen on roads leading into Slovyansk.

Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page that government troops had met fierce resistance from the separatists but had succeeded in retaking nine checkpoints on roads surrounding Slovyansk.

In apparent response to the helicopter assault, the Kremlin has urged an accounting of what in southeast Ukraine, where "aviation is being used against [the] population," Reuters says.

Ukraine authorities said one of the helicopters was downed by a surface-to-air missile, "which it said undercut Russia's claims that the city is under the control of civilians who took up arms," the AP reports. Soraya says a grenade launcher reportedly may have been used to take down the other helicopter.

The Kremlin says Kiev's actions "killed the last hope" for a deal to diffuse the crisis that was agreed on last month in Geneva.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov also described Ukraine's operation as "punitive," the BBC reports.

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