May 2, 2014 - 10:12 AMT
PanARMENIAN.Net - Ukrainian forces launched a "large-scale operation" to retake the eastern town of Slaviansk, pro-Russian activists holding the town said on Friday, May 2 as security deteriorated in a crisis that has provoked the biggest confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War, Reuters reported.
A Reuters photographer said he saw a military helicopter open fire on the outskirts of the town and a reporter heard gunfire. Activists said they were under attack and that at least one helicopter had been shot down.
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-declared mayor or the town, was quoted by Russia's Interfax news agency as saying two helicopters had been shot down and one pilot had been detained. Another had been killed.
Armed groups seeking union with Russia have seized a number of government buildings in towns in eastern Ukraine. The action in Slaviansk, if confirmed, would mark the first significant military response by Kyiv.
In Kyiv, an aide to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said he could not comment. "Until it's over, no one will say anything," the aide said.
The apparent assault to retake Slaviansk came only hours after Russia staged a huge May Day parade on Moscow's Red Square on Thursday - its first since the Soviet era - with workers holding banners proclaiming support for President Vladimir Putin.
On Wednesday, Ukraine's leaders - who came to power in February when the previous Moscow-backed president was toppled after months of protests - conceded they were "helpless" to counter the fall of government buildings and police stations in the Donbass coal and steel belt. Donbass is the source of around a third of Ukraine's industrial output.
Activists had also stormed the prosecutor's office in the city of Donetsk, throwing rocks, firecrackers and teargas at riot police defending officials they accused of working for the Western-backed government in Kyiv.
They have declared a "People's Republic of Donetsk" and called a referendum on secession for May 11, undercutting a planned presidential election in Ukraine two weeks later.
Having seized buildings in the capital of the easternmost province, Luhansk, on Tuesday, gunmen took control at dawn on Wednesday in the nearby towns of Horlivka and Alchevsk.
The International Monetary Fund warned that if Ukraine lost territory in the east it would have to redesign a $17 billion bailout of the country, probably requiring additional financing.