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Early on Friday, officials in the Ukrainian capital Kiev said they had launched a dawn campaign to remove pro-Russian militia from government buildings they had occupied in the city of 130,000 residents, which is located in the predominantly ethnically Russian eastern region of the country.
But pro-Russian militia shot down two Ukrainian Mi-24 combat helicopters, killing two pilots, and damaged a Mi-8 transport plane. The Ukrainian Defence Ministry showed footage on television of four men it says were apprehended for downing the helicopters using shoulder-fired rockets.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was “extremely worried” about the welfare of Russians in Slovyansk after what he called Kiev’s “punitive” military campaign on the city.
He said that hopes for peace were now being scuttled.
An agreement brokered by the EU, Russia, Ukraine and the US – collectively known as the Ukraine Contact Group – in Geneva was last week meant to defuse tensions as it called for pro-Moscow protesters to vacate official buildings seized in recent weeks.
However, the protesters have refused to leave the buildings, and in Slovyansk, pro-Russian militia have vowed to make a Stalingrad-like last stand.
The US blamed Moscow for the recent escalations.
In recent weeks, Moscow mobilised tens of thousands of troops along the Ukraine border for military exercises. But there are fears in Europe that with the security situation worsening in Ukraine, Russia could use its forces to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
When at least five pro-Russian militia were killed in Slovyansk last week, Putin warned that Moscow’s military forces would only be used in the Ukraine if ethnic Russians living there were threatened or attacked.
He denied of any Russian forces in the Ukraine: “We often hear that there are our special forces units or instructors there. I am telling you with all responsibility — there are no Russian instructors or ‘commando’ units or troops there.”
The Russian President has also criticised recent enhanced sanctions slapped by the US and its EU allies.
“We are reluctant to take any retaliatory measures, I hope it won’t be needed,” he said.
The US announced an expansion of its separate sanctions list on Monday, adding seven high-ranking Russian officials and 17 Russian companies.