More than 30 people were killed as the result of a fire in a building during a clash between pro- and anti-Russian groups that broke on the streets of largely Russian-speaking Odessa on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast Friday, as violence spread across the country during the bloodiest day since Kiev’s Western-backed government took power.
Many of those killed in Odessa were reportedly pro-Russian demonstrators who stormed the trade union building before a fire broke out. Most died from smoke inhalation, but others leapt out of the windows, some to their deaths.
Reportedly, about 50 people were wounded after pro-Russian activists attacked supporters of Ukrainian unity marching through Odessa, deepening rifts in the largely Russian-speaking port city. The clashes in the Black Sea port happened earlier, however, the battles have never resulted in deaths and some residents said they feared both sides may now try to seek retribution.
The violence came as US President Barack Obama called on Russia to influence pro-Russian military groups in Ukraine to stand down, threatening further sanctions if they failed to comply. The President, speaking at the White House with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said they were united in their desire to impose costs on Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
“Today, the international community must stand together in support of the Ukrainian people as they cope with this tragedy,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement mourning the “heartbreaking” loss of life in Odessa. “The violence and mayhem that led to so many senseless deaths and injuries is unacceptable.”
Speaking on Ukrainian television late on Friday, Serhiy Pashynsky, head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, said the violence in Odessa was a “provocation” of Russia’s “FSB” state security agency intended to “destabilise the situation” and “implode our country from the inside”.
In response, Russia’s foreign ministry claimed that the deaths were “another manifestation of the criminal irresponsibility of the Kiev authorities”. Moscow accused them of “indulging radical nationalists, including Right Sector” who in turn were “organizing physical terror campaigns against supporters of federalisation”.
Kiev said it was forced to act in eastern Ukraine because Moscow was backing groups there who were “putting civilians in danger, seizing hostages and creating an atmosphere of terror and violence”.
In the east, pro-Russian separatists brought down two Ukrainian military helicopters involved in a pre-dawn operation to try to dislodge the militants from their strongholds in the town of Slaviansk.
The separatists said three of their number had been killed, and two civilians, while the defense ministry said two crew from the downed helicopters died and two other servicemen were killed when separatists attacked them on Friday evening, reports Reuters.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said the Kremlin was “extremely worried” that it had not heard from an envoy Mr. Putin had sent to the eastern city to help free foreign hostages. He said the “punitive operation” mounted by Ukrainian forces had destroyed the two-week-old Geneva agreement on cooling Ukraine’s crisis.
A third helicopter, an Mi-8 transport aircraft, was also hit and a serviceman wounded, the defence ministry said. The SBU security service said this helicopter was carrying medics. Ukrainian officials said their troops overran rebel checkpoints and Slaviansk was now “tightly encircled”.
Central Slovyansk still remained in the hands of pro-Russia gunmen, according to AP journalists in the city. Several foreign news crews were detained for several hours Friday before being released.