SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down a government military helicopter Thursday amid heavy fighting around Slovyansk, killing 14 soldiers including a general, Ukraine's leader said.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told the parliament in Kiev that rebels used a portable air defense missile Thursday to bring down the helicopter. He said Gen. Serhiy Kulchytskiy was among the dead, according to the Interfax news agency, which earlier gave the wrong first name for the general.
Slovyansk, 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the Russian border, has become the epicenter of fighting between pro-Russia insurgents and government forces in recent weeks. Its residential areas have regularly come under mortar shelling from government forces, causing civilian casualties and prompting some residents to flee.
An Associated Press reporter saw the helicopter go down amid a trail of black smoke. Gunshots were heard in Slovyansk near the crash site and a Ukrainian air force jet was seen circling above. It was too dangerous to visit the site itself.
Turchynov said the helicopter was flying troops in for a rotation to a hill outside Slovyansk where Ukrainian forces have set up positions.
The Interfax news agency said Kulchytskiy had once served in the Soviet army and was in charge of combat training for Ukraine's National Guards.
The city of 120,000 is in the Donetsk region, one of the two sprawling provinces in eastern Ukraine that have declared independence from the government in Kiev.
The Kiev government condemns the insurgency roiling the east as the work of "terrorists" bent on destroying the country and blames Russia for fomenting it. Russia denies the accusations, saying it has no influence over rebels, who insist they are only protecting the interests of Russian-speakers in the east.
Still, fighters from Russia, including from the battled-hardened region of Chechnya, have been appearing recently in the ranks of the separatists.