Death toll rises in Ukraine crisis, fresh warnings of civil war arise

The death toll from a military offensive in a flashpoint town in east Ukraine rose to at least 34, officials said on Tuesday, amid fresh warnings of civil war and the shutdown of a major airport in the region.

‘Chaos and the risk of civil war’ are now looming in Ukraine, said French President Francois Hollande, reflecting a frantic European push under way for a diplomatic solution before it is too late. There are fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin could yet order an invasion into his ex-Soviet neighbour under the guise of a ‘peacekeeping’ mission.

But the US general commanding NATO’s military operations, Philip Breedlove, said Russian special forces the West believes are already deployed covertly ‘may be able to accomplish his (Putin’s) objectives in eastern Ukraine’ without the need to send in troops.

Kiev and its Western backers see Moscow’s main aims as making sure Ukraine’s east holds a planned ‘referendum’ on Sunday calling for autonomy, and sabotaging all possibility of a nationwide presidential election two weeks later. With those deadlines ticking closer, Ukraine’s authorities yesterday stepped up their offensive to crush rebels holed up in Slavyansk, a flashpoint town of more than 110,000 people that is the epicentre of the insurgency. ‘Four of our fighters were killed and 20 were wounded’ there in fierce fighting yesterday, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his official Facebook page.

‘According to our estimates over 30 terrorists were killed and dozens were wounded,’ he said. In a sign of how well-armed and trained the pro-Russian fighters are, on Monday they shot down a helicopter gunship near the town -- their third since the assault on the town began last week.

An AFP reporter inside Slavyansk said fighting had not yet reached the centre of town, but basic foodstuffs and other items were running increasingly short. Locals hostile to Kiev’s government have strewn tree trunks and tyres across the streets to slow any army advance. Ukraine’s interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, meanwhile, appointed his acting army chief permanently to the post. He has already put his armed forces on combat alert and brought back conscription in preparation for a possible Russian invasion. He has said that Moscow’s meddling means ‘war is in effect being waged against us’.
Separately on Tuesday, all flights in and out of Donetsk -- a regional industrial hub of more than one million people -- were suspended, according to airport authorities, who gave no reason for the action.
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