A Ukrainian military helicopter has been shot down in Slovyansk, killing 14 people including an army general, as rebels and government forces fought fierce battles in the country’s east.
Also on Thursday, a convoy of pro-Russian separatists was reported to be heading towards the Donetsk airport which government forces had recently recaptured.
The airport was the scene of heavy fighting that killed at least 50 pro-Russia fighters earlier in the week. The government claims it has taken control of the site, but the separatists have taken the road leading to it.
“Clearly that convoy was heavily loaded with weapons and ammunition,” Al Jazeera’s David Chater, reporting from Donetsk said. “So, they are ready for a fight here.”
In Kiev, acting Ukraine President, Oleksandr Turchynov, told parliament that pro-Russian groups using surface-to-air missiles shot down the helicopter, which had been ferrying servicemen including General Serhiy Kulchytskiy, who was among the dead.
The Interfax news agency said Kulchytskiy had once served in the Soviet army and was in charge of combat training for Ukraine’s National Guard.
A separatist spokesman had earlier told Russian news agencies that the armed group had downed a Ukrainian army helicopter in a fierce battle that was still raging on the southern outskirts of the rebel-controlled city.
The unnamed spokesman said that “as a result of active military activities, several houses belonging to civilians caught fire”.
The attack came as separatists in Donetsk began holding funerals for dozens of fighters killed in the battle for the city’s airport on Monday.
The self-proclaimed prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksander Boroday, told families of the dead that he and his supporters were “prepared for more fighting”.
Speaking in front of relatives gathered at the Kalininsky Hospital morgue, he said he hoped he would not have to request “more assistance” from Russia, Al Jazeera’s John Wendle in Donetsk reported.
Kiev says Russia is sending troops to fight with separatists. Moscow denies the accusations, saying it has no influence over rebels.
Meanwhile, a rebel leader in Slovyansk said his fighters are holding four observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe(OSCE) and promised that they would be released imminently.
Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk, said the monitors who are from Turkey, Switzerland, Estonia and Denmark were safe.
The OSCE said it had lost contact with one of its four-man monitoring teams in Donetsk on Monday evening.
The rebels have declared the Donetsk and Luhansk regions independent of Ukraine.
They have pleaded to join Russia, but President Vladimir Putin has ignored their appeal in an apparent bid to de-escalate tensions with the West and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.