DONETSK, UKRAINE— There was heavy fighting Monday on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, as government security forces resumed operations aimed at wresting control of the town from pro-Russian militants. But the government lost another helicopter, and it isn’t winning the battle for hearts and minds.
The Ukrainian government says its security forces are making progress in the struggle to dislodge anti-government fighters in the east, but it has still to advance on the center of Slovyansk, which has been the focus of the pro-Russian insurgency in the area. Separatist checkpoints cleared one day return the next -- or are rebuilt a few hundred meters nearer the besieged town.
With little territory gained so far, the government’s campaign is deepening the anger of local residents, including 24-year-old secretary Nadin.
“They had a lot of guns, machine guns, they shoot like this to all house, to all people, and my house is fully damaged, all windows,” said Nadin, mimicking gunfire.
A short distance away a truck burns, choking people with black smoke. It was hit in the crossfire in the Slovyansk suburb of Semenovka, where a two-hour battle raged Monday. A yellow tarpaulin covers the body of the driver, lying in front of the cafe Nadin’s mother owns.
He was one of six killed, including a Ukrainian soldier, in the skirmish, doctors here said. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said four people were killed Monday in the fighting and 30 wounded.
Nadin’s house was hit - the windows on one side shattered, the siding badly damaged. Nadin and her family took cover as best they could.
“I think after this shooting a lot of people will afraid of our government and I think they will ask for help to Russia,” said Nadin.
The Ukrainian government’s campaign to dislodge protesters in Slovyansk and to tackle Moscow-backed militants in neighboring towns has angered the Kremlin, which warns it may intervene.
Those threats took on a more menacing tone following the loss of life Friday in Odessa, a southern sea port most Ukrainians associate with balmy summer vacations. At least 40 people died there on Friday, most of them pro-Russian protesters killed in a burning building during a street battle that saw separatists and pro-unity activists trade Molotov cocktails.
Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has called for unity, saying the violence across southeast Ukraine is being fomented by Moscow and only benefits the Kremlin. But the death toll in Odessa and Kyiv’s attempts to bring the east under control is hardening opinions.
Igor, 58, a pro-Russian fighter, said he thinks the time for talking is over and dialogue and negotiation is impossible. It would be better to be with Russia now, he said.