Ukrainian authorities claimed significant progress Tuesday in their off-and-on fight against Russian separatists in the east of the country, but the separatists said the claims were exaggerated.
Parliament speaker Olexander Turchinov said Ukrainian army and security forces stormed a secret "terrorist" camp in the Donetsk region, killing scores of people, and officials also claimed to have inflicted major damage on separatists near the city of Slovyansk.
“Today in the morning, many terrorists were destroyed in the camp they had secretly set up in the industrial zone near the town of Severodonetsk" in Donetsk, Turchinov told a session of parliament. “Now our anti-terrorist operation forces are conducting a complex of active measures aimed at liberating Severodonetsk.”
There were widely conflicting reports about heavy fighting near Slovyansk, a city in the Donetsk region that has been the epicenter of the pro-Russia rebellion. Some Russian-speaking Ukrainians, assisted by heavily armed Russians who have streamed across the border, are seeking to secede from Ukraine, following the lead of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia earlier this year.
A Ukrainian government official, Vladislav Seleznev, claimed that Ukrainian forces had killed as many as 300 secessionists on the outskirts of Slovyansk.
However, the head of the pro-Russia group holding Slovyansk said only two of his men were killed in the fighting, and 12 wounded.
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov also claimed that his separatist forces had shot down a Ukrainian SU-25 combat jet and an MI-24 helicopter and burned six Ukrainian army armored vehicles. Seleznev denied that had occurred.
None of the claims could be independently confirmed.
An Associated Press journalist in the area reported hearing sustained gun and artillery fire and saw plumes of black smoke rising over Slovyansk. Ukrainian combat jets could be seen flying over the city.
The fighting was reported to be on the eastern outskirts of Slovyansk, with especially heavy combat near the outlying areas of Semyonovka and Krasny Liman.
“The terrorist forces are melting down,” Seleznev said in an interview with the Ukrinform news agency.
One Ukrainian serviceman died and 13 were wounded when an armored convoy ran into an ambush on the road from Izyum, a town near Slovyansk, Seleznev added.
Ponomaryov, who calls himself the mayor of Slovyansk, insisted that his forces had held their own.
“Our actions were very successful today, as we repelled three attacks and currently are holding our positions,” he said in a telephone interview from Slovyansk. “We are bracing now for a major storm of the town.”
A majority of the people in Slovyansk had already left the town for places they considered safer, said Sergei Penkov, a 46-year-old local resident.
"My family is on the way to Kherson, [a regional capital next to Crimea] as I am hiding here in the basement,” Penkov, a carpenter in Semyonovka, said in a phone interview. He said pro-Russia gunmen set up a large-caliber machine gun near his house.
"I nearly went deaf with them shooting like mad all day,” he said.
Russian authorities announced last week that they helped evacuate over a hundred children from Slovyansk to a summer camp in Crimea and offered Ukraine authorities help delivering humanitarian aid to the conflict-stricken regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The offer was bluntly rejected; Ukraine's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yevgeny Perebeynos, suggested that Russia withdraw its militants from the regions instead.
The Kremlin has denied that it has aided the secessionist movement, but Russian nationals have been identified among the separatists, and they have been heavily armed with military weapons.
Also Tuesday, Ukraine's border service claimed that it had repelled an overnight attack on a border post in the Luhansk region and claimed to have killed five and wounded eight of the attackers. Eight Ukrainian border troops were wounded in the attack, the service said in a statement posted on its official website.
Special correspondent Victoria Butenko in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.