Deaths And Downed Helicopters In Eastern Ukraine Offensive

The Ukrainian government says it has begun an operation to retake the eastern Ukrainian town of Slovyansk from pro-Moscow militants. Militants there have already shot down two government helicopters.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Clashes in Ukraine have left at least 30 people dead in the city of Odessa today. Pro-Kiev and pro-Moscow groups fought in the streets. One of the groups reportedly took refuge in a building that was set on fire amid the chaos. Many who died are said to have fallen or jumped from its windows. This violence in the south comes on the same day Ukrainian troops moved against pro-Moscow militants in the eastern part of the country. The Ukrainian troops were trying to reach a town where a group of European military observers are being held hostage. This morning, two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down by the militants. Both pilots are said to have been killed and a number of the pro-Moscow militants are also reported dead. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson joins us from Donetsk. And, Soraya, you tried to reach the town of Slavyansk today - that's the town that seems to be the focus of the new government offensive. How did you get on?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, it was incredibly difficult. I mean, you have to imagine that you have a circle of Ukrainian military vehicles and troops blocking off or sort of forming a cordon around the city. And behind them were yet another group of pro-Russian separatists which formed their own cordon. And they were incredibly aggressive today. I mean, my own experiences included stopping at one checkpoint where they ended up running off with our bulletproof vests. They ended up not giving back one of them. There were very few people on any streets of any of these towns that we went to today. And there certainly was a lot of tension.

SIEGEL: Give us a sense of the morale of the two sides on the ground, as you perceived it.

NELSON: People were sort of digging in, if you will. There's a lot of frustration here. The feeling is that the government in Kiev, which many here consider illegitimate or at least not responsive to the needs of the people here, I think really irritated folks by coming in today with this military offensive. And so we saw a lot of them - those that were out were at these checkpoints standing in the way. I went to this little area outside, basically on the outskirts of Slavyansk called Yansnahorka(ph). And there, you had all these people - just literally, you know, young people, old people - and they were all standing there in the face of this convoy of armored personnel carriers and Ukrainian troops, not letting them pass.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARGUING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

NELSON: And one of the things that we're hearing here is a group of young men jumping up on top of a truck, pulling down tractor tires that they were using to build yet another blockade to prevent these armored personnel carriers from coming into towns.

SIEGEL: Soraya, what's the scale of this government offensive and what kind of resistance are Ukrainian government forces facing?

NELSON: Well, this is said to be the largest offensive since this crisis began last month. And you can tell by the mood alone, even if you can't see that many of the troops - I mean, again, access was very much blocked to us. I did see paratroopers and I did see these armored personnel carriers. And the kind of resistance is very strong resistance in these areas that are very strongly pro-Russian. This certainly not seem to be a way of deescalating the crisis, which is something that the larger powers - the U.S. and Russia and EU - have said that they wanted to see.

SIEGEL: And was the downing of those two helicopters, is that seen as a significant escalation of this conflict?

NELSON: Yes. As you mentioned, two helicopters were downed very early in this operation. And it was significant in the sense that the interior minister immediately pointed out that if these were civil militias and peoples rising up, where would they get surface-to-air missiles, where would they get rocket grenade launchers? I mean, it does take some effort to bring down military helicopters. The interior ministry was accusing the rebels of hiring professional mercenaries to carry out this sort of attack. And we did see a lot more professional-looking soldiers, shall we say, in, you know, camouflage uniforms with very new and heavy looking weapons, wearing masks in the city of Kramatorsk, which is about 10 miles south of Slavyansk. They were there setting up a checkpoint to try and cut off Ukrainian forces from their base to the south.

SIEGEL: Soraya, thanks, and take care.

NELSON: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, reporting from eastern Ukraine.

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