Ukrainian armed forces on Tuesday launched a “special operation” against separatists in the town of Kramatorsk in the east of the country, the defence ministry was quoted as saying by Interfax.
Local journalists quoted by Interfax said automatic firing could be heard from the direction of Kramatorsk’s military airfield and said a fighter jet had swooped low over the area.
A correspondent of Espresso TV meanwhile said the Ukrainian plane had been trying to land but had not been able to do so because separatists had opened fire on it.
Earlier, pro-Russian militants who had been holed up in the police headquarters since Saturday had quit the building – but a state security official in Kiev said separatists had then taken over the agency’s offices in the town.
A Reuters correspondent in the town reported seeing first a fighter jet over the town and then four military helicopters over the airport.
Two of these landed and when troops stepped out and walked across the field, locals manning a barricade shouted “Shame! Go back home!”
Earlier Interim president Oleksander Turchinov insisted the operation had started in the eastern Donetsk region, although it would happen in stages and “in a considered way”. Turchinov said the offensive, which he first announced on Sunday, was finally underway. “The anti-terrorist operation began during the night in the north of Donetsk region. But it will take place in stages, responsibly, in a considered way. I once again stress: the aim of these operations is to defend the citizens of Ukraine,” he told parliament.
Russia declared Ukraine on the brink of civil war on Tuesday as Kiev said an “anti-terrorist operation” against pro-Moscow separatists was underway, though the crackdown got off to a slow start, if at all.
Moscow accuses Kiev of provoking the crisis by ignoring the rights of citizens who use Russian as their first language, and has promised to protect them from attack. It has also highlighted the presence of far-right nationalists among Kiev’s new rulers. However, a United Nations report on Tuesday cast doubt on whether Russian-speakers were seriously threatened, including those in Crimea who voted to join Russia after Moscow forces had already seized control of the Black Sea peninsula.
Amidst the deepest East-West crisis since the Cold War, the leaders of Russia and the United States called on each other to do all in their power to avoid further bloodshed.