Pilot killed in escalating tension in Ukraine

Pro-Russian rebels grounded two Ukrainian helicopters, killing one pilot and injuring another

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Pro-Russian rebels shot down two Ukrainian helicopters in the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing one pilot, during a raid launched by Ukrainian troops at dawn in an attempt to regain control over the rebel-held city on Friday.

Gunfire and blasts were heard earlier in the morning, as Ukrainian troops surrounded the town and deployed military helicopters.

Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov accused pro-Moscow separatists of using mercenaries, adding that his government answered the offensive with heavy artillery and managed to regain control of nine checkpoints located on roads surrounding Slovyansk.

Rebels used grenade and portable anti-aircraft missile launchers to ground the planes, according to Avakov, Reuters reported.

An Associated Press reporter saw six Ukrainian armored vehicles, and a cameraman saw black clouds of smoke over the city’s outskirts, reported the new agency on Friday.

Kiev had previously accused Moscow of providing arms and financing the separatists who seized government buildings in several cities across Ukraine’s eastern region.

Russia rejected the accusations, saying that the separatists are Russian-speakers defending themselves against a potential assault by Kiev’s Western-backed leaders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Ukraine must withdraw its military from the eastern and southern regions of the country.

Hours after his statement, Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov renewed the military draft, citing interference by Russia in an internal affair and “threats of encroachment on the nation’s territorial integrity.”

However, Kiev acknowledged it had little control over police forces in the east, which poses a threat on the status of the presidential election due May 25 which some hope will to put an end to the messy transitional period witnessed by the country following the ouster of Russia-backed former President Viktor Yanukovich in February.

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