The Kiev government, trying to break rebellions by pro-Russia
militias, said over 300 rebels had been killed in the past 24 hours
in the "anti-terrorist operation" centered on the eastern town, a
strategically located separatist stronghold.
Rebels denied this, saying losses among the Ukrainian forces during
an offensive begun on Tuesday exceeded theirs.
At an army checkpoint on the edge of town, heavy artillery shelling
could be heard while a plume of black smoke rose above the
outskirts. Automatic gunfire rattled out from nearby fields.
Families fled the fighting through a barbed-wire checkpoint with
only as much as they could carry. "It's a mess," sobbed a young
woman as she clutched her husband's arm. "It's war."
Andrei Bander left with his four-year-old daughter. "We are going.
We don't even know where. We will head to Russia though because it's
clear we need to leave Ukraine," he said, waiting for a taxi in a
small a no-man's land between the two sides.
In support for the Ukrainian forces, acting President Oleksander
Turchinov and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov paid an impromptu
visit, clad in flak jackets, to another army roadblock on the far
side of the encircled town on Wednesday.
A spokesman for government forces said two soldiers had been killed
and 45 wounded since Kiev launched its offensive near Slaviansk with
aircraft, helicopters and artillery.
Separatists controlling the town since early April denied the
government's casualty figures and claimed to have shot down an army
helicopter - something denied in turn by Kiev.
"Losses to the Ukrainian side were more than ours," said Aleksander
Boroday, "prime minister" of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's
Republic. He said nine had died and 15 were injured among
separatists forces in Slaviansk.
At a news conference in the regional capital Donetsk, he said
separatists would mobilize forces and train volunteers to fight in
Slaviansk and defend their positions in Donetsk.
President-elect Petro Poroshenko ordered the resumption of
operations by government forces soon after his May 25 election to
quell the rebellion by militia in the Russian-speaking, where people
were largely unable or unwilling to vote in the poll.
In Warsaw, where he met U.S. President Barack Obama, he said he
would unveil a plan for a "peaceful resolution" of the situation in
the east after his inauguration next Saturday.
Kiev says the fighting was stirred up by Moscow, which opposes its
pro-Western course, and accuses Russia of letting volunteers cross
into Ukraine to fight alongside the rebels.
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Moscow denies this and renewed calls on Wednesday for Ukraine to
open dialogue with the separatists. But the separatists look to
Moscow for help.
"When is (Russian President Vladimir) Putin going
to come help us?" asked a young man in fatigues at a rebel
ANTAGONISM TOWARDS KIEV
A few kilometers away, a man from central Ukraine said he belonged
to a separatist group called the Russian Orthodox army. "This is our
land. We will stand here until the last," he said.
Slaviansk, a separatist stronghold of 130,000, has strategic value
since it sits at the center of the Donbass region at the cross-roads
of eastern Ukraine's three main regions.
Government forces appeared to be tightening their grip but it was
too soon to predict the outcome. A government camp in Luhansk,
further to the east on the Russian border, was evacuated after an
attack by separatists on Monday.
The military operation has hardened antagonism against the present
government that came to power when President Viktor Yanokovich was
toppled in February after mass protests in Kiev.
"Our Ukrainian army is not protecting us, instead it is attacking
us. Thanks to them I have to flee my own land," said Larissa
Zhuratova, a Slaviansk resident piling onto a bus full of refugees
bound for Moscow.
Men were mostly not being let through the army checkpoint.
At a run-down dormitory in a village some 100 km south of the
fighting, an eight-year-old refugee mimicked the sound of shelling.
"It went ba-boom. We sat in the bathtub," little Vitaly said,
playing with toys gifted by local residents.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Donetsk and Pavel Polityuk
in Kiev; Writing by Alissa; de Carbonnel and Richard Balmforth;
Editing by Tom Heneghan)
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