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Ukraine strikes in pro-Russian east; 2 helicopters shot down

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine -- Two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down Friday as Ukraine launched its first major offensive against the pro-Russia forces that have seized government buildings in the east. The Kremlin said Kiev's move against the insurgents “destroyed” hopes for peace in the region.

Fighting broke out around dawn near Slovyansk, a city 160 kilometers from the Russian border that has become the focus of the armed insurgency against Ukraine's interim government. Two helicopter crew were killed in the crashes, both sides said.

Two Ukrainian servicemen were killed in the pre-dawn operation to wrest the eastern town from insurgents' control, authorities in Kiev said. An AFP toll compiled from both sides showed a total of seven people died in the violence in the east.

Interim president Oleksandr Turchynov said “many rebels” had died in the offensive and urged Russia to stop its “hysteria” and “threats” over the crisis.

The interior ministry also said one person died from gunshot wounds in the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa during clashes between pro-Russian militants and hundreds of people holding a rally for national unity.

An insurgent spokeswoman said three rebels and two civilians were killed in the Ukrainian assault on Slovyansk.

One of the helicopters was hit by a surface-to-air missile, the Ukrainian Security Service said, adding that the sophisticated weapon undercut Russia's claims the city was simply under the control of armed locals. The agency said its forces were fighting “highly skilled foreign military men” in Slovyansk.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said the offensive “effectively destroyed the last hope for the implementation of the Geneva agreements” that aimed to defuse the crisis. A day earlier Putin warned Ukraine not to move against the insurgents and said it should withdraw its military from eastern and southern regions.

Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, is deeply divided between those in the west who favor closer ties with Europe and many Russian-speakers in the east who look toward Moscow.

Ukraine has accused Russia of backing the insurgents who have seized government buildings in 10 eastern cities and fears that Moscow is seeking a pretext to invade; Russia has already stationed tens of thousands of troops in areas near the Ukrainian border.

Russian troops backed separatists in Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March, then annexed the region after a referendum called for secession.

A deal in Geneva last month aimed to get those who had seized government buildings in Ukraine to leave and calm down the tensions that have prompted the United States and the European Union to slap Russia with sanctions for its actions in Ukraine.

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Ukrainian soldiers stand at a checkpoint they seized in the early morning in the village of Andreevka, 7 kilometers from the center of the southern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on Friday, May 2. (AFP)

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