Ukraine Military Helicopter Shot Down, 14 Dead

By Candice Naranjo

Thu May 29th, 2014 5:00am America/Los_Angeles

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Donetsk, Ukraine (CNN) — At least 14 people, including a general, were killed Thursday when a Ukrainian military helicopter was shot down by “terrorists” near Slovyansk, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told parliament.

Militants in the rebel stronghold claimed responsibility for downing the helicopter, a spokesman for the militants said. The aircraft had flown there from Kramatorsk, he said, where the Ukrainian military has a large buildup of forces.

Also in Slovyansk, the self-declared mayor told CNN that pro-Russia separatist militants are holding four European observers who have been missing since Monday.

But he declined to say where exactly.

“Our militants got them,” Vyacheslav Ponomarev said Thursday. “They were detained because they didn’t respect my request. I asked them not to leave Donetsk (city). They decided they were smarter and could come here.”

Ponomarev, the self-described mayor of Slovyansk, added that the monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were not being held in the town.

They also are not “exchange material,” he said, indicating they were not being held to swap for separatists detained by Kiev authorities.

Ponomarev said he had been in contact with the OSCE, and they were assessing the situation. He said he would likely release the monitors soon, but wouldn’t say when.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebynis said a pro-Russia group was holding the OSCE monitors.

“The negotiations for their release are in process,” Perebynis said.

The four team members, who are Swiss, Turkish, Estonian and Danish, were on a routine patrol Monday east of Donetsk city when last heard from, according to the OSCE.

The last time an OSCE team went missing in the Donetsk region, its members also turned up in the hands of the militant separatists in Slovyansk. They were freed just over a week later.

There were fears Wednesday that another group of 11 monitors had gone missing after being stopped at a roadblock in Marinka, west of Donetsk, but the group re-established contact with the OSCE after returning to Donetsk, according to an OSCE statement.

Dozens of pro-Russia separatists were killed after Ukrainian security forces launched an assault on Donetsk International Airport on Monday, following the militants’ seizure of a terminal.

Now the grim task of returning the dead to their families is under way.

At least 33 Russian citizens are among the militants killed during the violence, a spokesman for the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” told a CNN team at the morgue.

The bodies have been identified and there is an agreement with the local police to escort the remains back to Russia soon, several separatist representatives said.

The bodies will first be taken across the border to the southwestern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. From there, they will be transported to different towns according to where they are from in Russia and Chechnya.

The CNN team at the morgue in Donetsk city saw at least 10 coffins.

The separatist spokesman at the morgue said that the men were volunteers from across Russia who had come to help stand with the separatists against the authorities in Kiev.

The spokesman also said that there are still around 15 bodies left at Donetsk International Airport, which the separatists haven’t yet been able to collect or identify.

The death toll from Monday’s violence at the airport could be as high as 70, he added.

The Donetsk mayor’s official website on Tuesday put the death toll at 40, including two civilians, but did not specify how many were separatists.

The Ukrainian military’s move against the militants at Donetsk airport was interpreted by some as an indication that newly elected president Petro Poroshenko will take a tougher stance.

Ukraine’s National Guard base in Luhansk was attacked Wednesday by what the country’s Interior Ministry described as “terrorists.”

“There have been losses among military personnel as well as among the attackers,” a statement from the ministry said.

The Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine is, with neighboring Donetsk, at the heart of the separatists’ bid to declare independence from Ukraine.

Eastern Ukraine was a key support base for ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych and many people there oppose the authorities in Kiev, favoring closer ties instead to Russia.

(Copyright 2014, CNN, All rights reserved.)

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