As the Ukrainian military launched an offensive assault on the eastern city of Slavyansk on Friday, pro-Russian militias in the area have reportedly shot down two helicopters, killing at least some of the soldiers on board while others were wounded and captured.
News of the assault in Moscow resulted in a statement from President Putin that said "all hope" for the survival of a diplomatic settlement reached in Geneva two weeks ago is likely destroyed and criticized the western-backed Kiev government for ordering the use of "air power" against its own people in the east.
Kiev says the aircraft were "on patrol" while separatists claim the helicopters were part of an offensive against the city and fired missiles.
Reports from Slavyansk indicate that local separatists have retained control of the city by repelling the soldiers sent from Kiev and fortifying barricades on key roads in the area.
According to Reuters:
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry said in a statement that two Mi-24 helicopter gunships were shot down by shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles while on patrol overnight around Slaviansk, a city that rebels have turned into a heavily-fortified stronghold. Two airmen were killed and others wounded. The attack helicopter normally has two crew but can carry more.
Other Ukrainian officials and the separatist leader in Slaviansk had said earlier that one airman was taken prisoner.
The New York Times reports:
Vyachislav Ponomaryov, the self-appointed mayor of Slovyansk, was quoted as telling Interfax on Friday that his forces had shot down two helicopters. One of the pilots was killed and another was captured, he said. Mr. Ponomaryov said the helicopters had fired missiles into the city, but there were no immediate reports to confirm his account.
According to various Russian media outlets, Ukrainian forces were “storming” the separatist stronghold, including making assaults on checkpoints ringing Slovyansk patrolled by pro-Russian militias.
The fighting described in the reports would be a potentially perilous escalation in a tinderbox region, where Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops just across the border on what it has called training maneuvers. But there has been little direct corroboration of the scale and targets of the offensive.
And Agence France-Presse adds:
As the crisis rapidly spirals into the worst East-West confrontation since the end of the Cold War, US President Barack Obama was due to discuss the tensions with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House later on Friday.
In what they called an "anti-terrorist" operation, the Ukrainian forces had for days encircled Slaviansk to prevent the insurgents receiving reinforcements.
Russia's foreign ministry warned on Thursday that any effort by Kiev to intensify its military operation "against its own people" in the east could have "catastrophic consequences".
And Russian news agencies quoted Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying that while Moscow was "making efforts to de-escalate and settle the conflict", Kiev had launched a "reprisal raid."