(CNN, May 5, 2014) — Ukrainian security forces battled pro-Russian militants in the eastern flashpoint city of Slovyansk on Monday as Kiev tackled the gunmen who have overrun the region.
Military gains were evident on the main highway into Slovyansk, a rebel stronghold, as government forces moved in.
A CNN team on the ground saw a substantial number of militants bolster their defensive positions and checkpoints inside the city. One civilian car was hit in the fighting, its exterior damaged by bullet holes.
At a local hospital, the CNN team saw several people injured from the heavy clashes. One woman had been shot in the head, probably in a crossfire, and two pro-Russian militants were also brought in.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said four people were killed and nearly 30 injured in the city. It quoted local residents as saying the attackers had shot at residential buildings and set them on fire. Militants blamed Ukrainian forces for the civilian casualties.
In a separate statement, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said a military helicopter was shot down “during a combat mission and patrolling in the area” of Slovyansk on Monday, but the pilots survived after it crashed into a river. They were later rescued.
Ukraine’s embattled new leaders have launched their most intensive effort yet to dislodge pro-Russian separatists who have reportedly seized government buildings in nearly a dozen cities and towns.
Kiev authorities describe the separatists as “terrorists.” But the rebels say they are defending Russian-speaking areas of the east against Ukrainian “fascists” trying to root out Russian influence in the country.
In a statement Monday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the Kiev government of “continuing a war against the people of their own country.”
“We again urge the Kiev organizers of terror against their own people to come to their senses, stop the bloodshed, withdraw troops and sit down, finally, at the negotiating table to start a normal dialogue on ways to resolve the political crisis,” the ministry said.
Many experts say Russia may be provoking unrest in eastern Ukraine to justify an incursion.