- Associated Press - Friday, May 2, 2014

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (AP) - Fighting broke out early Friday around an eastern city in Ukraine that has become the focus of a pro-Russian insurgency as government troops made attempts to retake control.

Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the insurgency-appointed mayor of Slovyansk, said self-defense forces had shot down two helicopters, killing one pilot and capturing the other.

The Ukrainian interior minister, Arsen Avakov, confirmed on his official Facebook page that one pilot was killed and another wounded, but did not say how.

Avakov said government troops had met with fierce resistance from the armed pro-Russia forces, but had managed to take control of nine checkpoints on roads around Slovyansk.

The official spokesman for the military wing of the pro-Russian forces, who will give only his first name, Vladislav, said fighting had broken out at several points around the city. He said government armored vehicles were seen on roads leading into Slovyansk and claimed that Ukrainian troops had made incursions into the city itself.

Details of these claims could not be independently confirmed.

On the road leading into Slovyansk from Kramatorsk to the south, An Associated Press reporter saw six Ukrainian armored vehicles.

An AP cameraman saw black plumes of smoke on the edge of the city. An emergency siren had sounded at dawn.

It appeared to be the first major assault against the insurgents, who have seized police stations and other government buildings in about a dozen cities in southeastern Ukraine.

The armed element of the insurgency is focused on Slovyansk, a city 160 kilometers (100 miles) west of Russia in which seven European military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe remain held by pro-Russia gunmen.

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

Hours later, Ukraine’s acting president ordered that the military draft be renewed, citing “threats of encroachment on the nation’s territorial integrity” and interference by Russia in its internal affairs.

Moscow has consistently denounced Ukrainian security forces’ largely ineffectual operation against the eastern insurgents and warned they should not commit violence against civilians.

In a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin said the removal of military units was the “main thing,” but it was unclear if that could be construed as an outright demand.

Oleksandr Turchynov’s conscription order marked a turnaround for the country, which last year announced plans to end military conscription in favor of an all-volunteer force. His order did not specify where conscript-bolstered forces could be deployed. The renewal of military conscription affects only men 18 to 25 years old.

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