Around 4:30 Friday morning, Ukraine began a military operation targeted against the pro-Russian separatists who were holed up buildings they had seized in Slovyansk, a city of around 125,000 people in the Dontesk region of eastern Ukraine.
Reportedly, as the conflict began, at least two helicopters were downed, and at least two Ukrainian soldiers were killed. Another, injured in the crash, is reportedly being held hostage by the separatists. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has reported that the insurgents suffered “many” losses.
Today’s operation was Ukrainian military’s first major offensive against the separatist insurgents, who have seized buildings and hostages and dominated Slovyansk’s city center. After a day of fighting, the city is now eerily quiet, one reporter tells me by phone. The evening cool has settled in, and a light rain is falling.
“You cannot see anything [from the combat],” he says. “You can only just here a few shots — a queue of shots, a series of shots from Kalashnikovs and something more serious. . . . I don’t want to create an atmosphere of a Resident Evil movie, but nonetheless, most of the shops are closed, and most of them don’t have bread inside, because it’s a food of first aid, and people buy it because — yeah, I think it’s kind of a panic.”
“For today, the situation is changing from minute to minute,” he says.
The reporter, who does multimedia for an international European tabloid, speaks to me on the condition that I don’t use his name; in recent weeks, separatist militiamen have kidnapped journalists in Slovyansk, and some, like 24-year-old Sergiy Lefter, remain unaccounted for. Earlier today, the separatists detained and then released television crews from CBS and Sky News. “I’m really concerned,” the reporter says.
As we spoke, the Ukrainian military was claiming it now controls of nine of the major checkpoints and some of the major railways leading into the city. The separatists still control the city center of Slovyansk.