DONETSK: Pro-Russian separatists shot down a Ukrainian army helicopter yesterday, killing 14 soldiers including a general, as government forces pressed ahead with an offensive to crush rebellions in the east swiftly following the election of a new president.
After weeks of accusations from Kiev of Russian involvement in the uprising, a rebel leader in the eastern city of Donetsk acknowledged that some of his fighters who died in the government offensive had been “volunteers” from Russia, saying their bodies were being returned across the border.
In Kiev, outgoing acting president Oleksander Turchinov said the helicopter, which had been carrying supplies in eastern Ukraine, had been brought down by anti-aircraft fire from near the town of Slaviansk, which has been under the control of separatists since early April.
It was one of the heaviest losses suffered by the army during two months of separatist unrest, and followed a fierce assault by government forces in which 50 or so rebels were killed earlier this week.
“I have just received information that terrorists using Russian anti-aircraft missiles shot down our helicopter near Slaviansk. It had been ferrying servicemen for a change of duty,” Turchinov told parliament. The bodies of some of the separatists killed this week when the Ukrainian military fought to regain control of Donetsk international airport were being prepared for return to Russia, the rebel leader said.
In an admission that the rebels were being supported by Russian militia fighters, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, said: “Those who are volunteers from Russia will be taken to Russia today.”
At Donetsk’s Kalinin morgue, where the dead from the violence were taken, 30 coffins were laid out in rows yesterday. “Yes. They’re going to Russia,” said an orthodox priest, who was edgy and did not wish to be named.
In another part of the morgue lay a local man, 43-year-old Mark Zverev, who had also been killed in the airport fighting.
Interior minister Arsen Avakov accused the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin of being behind the airport violence, which began when rebels seized a terminal the morning after Ukraine’s election.
Weapons collected at the airport after the rebels were forced out by airstrikes and a paratroop assault had been brought in from Russia, he said.