Ukraine/Russian conflict turning hot

Ukraine sent armored vehicles and artillery to retake Slovyansk, a stronghold for pro-separatist forces, defying President Vladimir Putin’s demand to pull back troops with Russia’s army massed across the border.

Interior Ministry forces were dispatched at 4:30 a.m. local time to drive out militants and free hostages, including eight international monitors, minister Arsen Avakov said on Facebook. Rebels shot down two helicopters, killing two pilots, the Defense Ministry said. Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said in a statement “many” rebels were killed, wounded or captured.’’ The United Nations Security Council is preparing to hold an emergency meeting at Russia’s request.

“We’re ready to hold talks with protesters or their representatives,” Avakov said on the government website as troops surrounded Slovyansk. “But terrorists and armed separatists will only get the inevitable payback.”

The U.S. and the European Union blame Russia for fomenting unrest in Ukraine’s easternmost, largely Russian-speaking regions and have threatened wider sanctions to target Russia’s economy unless Putin helps ease tensions. Putin yesterday urged Ukraine to withdraw forces from the east, as the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk slip out of the Kiev government’s control.

Markets React

The yield on Ukraine’s government debt rose 25 basis points to a six-week high of 10.90 percent as of 3:31 p.m. in Kiev, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Russian bonds fell, with the yield on ruble-denominated government debt due February 2027 jumping 20 basis points to 9.67 percent, four basis points from the record on March 14, the last trading day before Crimeans voted to join Russia. The ruble slid 0.4 percent to 42.0047 versus the central bank’s target dollar-euro basket by 5:37 p.m. in Moscow.

Today’s operation marked the most wide-scale attempt by Ukrainian authorities to retake ground from as many as 1,000 armed gunmen who’ve seized buildings in more than 10 cities. Some have demanded a referendum on joining Russia.

“They threw everything they had at us,” Igor Strelkov, a pro-Russian militia commander in the Donetsk region, where Slovyansk is located, said on Russia’s state-owned Rossiya 24 television. The mobile phone of Slovyansk’s self-appointed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, was off when called by Bloomberg.

Interior troops took control of nine rebel checkpoints in Slovyansk, detaining four rebels, according to Avakov, who called the operation “effective” and hailed the role of the newly formed National Guard. While the city is blockaded, fighting hasn’t reached its center, Rossiya 24 reported.

Reporters Released

A reporter and a translator from U.S. website Buzzfeed as well as eight people from Sky News and CBS news crews were abducted, according to Novosti Donbassa. Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio later said via Twitter that the journalists had been freed.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the use of advanced weapons showed the separatists were “professional saboteur groups” rather than peaceful protesters. In a statement, it called their tactics “characteristic of foreign military or mercenaries.”

There was also violence in southern Ukraine today, when a rally in the port city of Odessa in favor of a united country was attacked by pro-Russian protesters and stones and stun grenades were thrown, Ukrainian television stations reported. Police said one man died after being shot.

Ukraine says Russia is trying to destabilize the former Soviet republic to undermine presidential elections set for May 25. Turchynov signed a decree yesterday to reinstate the military draft.

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