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Updated: Tue, 06 May 2014 10:49:42 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Ukraine says 30 pro-Russian insurgents killed in country's east



Pro-Russian gunmen carry their weapons at the local administration building in the center of Slovyansk, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 6, 2014. Gunbattles took place at various positions around the city Monday in what has proven the most ambitious government effort to date to quell unrest in the mainly Russian-speaking east. (© AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Pro-Russian gunmen carry their weapons at the local administration building in the center of Slovyansk, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 6, 2014. Gunbattles took place at various positions around the city Monday in what has proven the most ambitious government effort to date to quell unrest in the mainly Russian-speaking east. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko) Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

Thirty pro-Russia insurgents and four government troops have been killed during operations to expunge anti-government forces around a key eastern city, Ukraine's interior minister reported Tuesday.

In the southwest, Kyiv authorities also attempted to reassert control over the key Black Sea region of Odesa by appointing a new governor there.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov gave the death toll on his Facebook page Tuesday, adding that 20 government troops were also injured during fighting in Slovyansk, a city of 125,000. It was not exactly clear when the deaths took place. Gunbattles around the city Monday were the interim government's most ambitious effort to date to quell weeks of unrest in Ukraine's mainly Russian-speaking east.

Avakov said Monday that pro-Russia forces in Slovyansk, a city of 125,000, were deploying large-calibre weapons and mortars in the region and there were injured on both sides. Government troops were facing about 800 insurgents, he said.

By Tuesday morning, Ukrainian forces had taken hold of a key checkpoint north of the city, dealing a blow to insurgent lines of communication. The checkpoint had come under repeated attack since the government offensive began.

In Donetsk, a major city some 120 kilometres south of Slovyansk, international flights from the local airport were suspended Tuesday. The airport said on its website that the cancellations followed a government order.

Ukraine is facing its worst crisis in decades as the polarized nation of 46 million tries to decide whether to look toward Europe, as its western regions want to do, or improve ties with Russia, which is favoured by the many Russian-speakers in the east. Dozens of government offices have been seized, either by armed insurgents or anti-government crowds, over the past several weeks.

The central government attempted to re-establish control Tuesday over the predominantly Russian-speaking Black Sea region of Odesa, where 46 people died after fighting and a fire broke out between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian forces late on Friday.

Acting governor, police chief fired

In a statement published on the president's website, the Kyiv authorities announced they were firing the acting governor and replacing him with member of parliament Ihor Palytsya. On Saturday, the police chief of the city was fired, mere hours after he had called for calm.

The concern that Odessa could be the next region to fall to pro-Russian forces — particularly after 67 people detained in Friday's rioting were released by the police under pressure from an angry crowd — has sparked concern in Kyiv. The government sent an elite national guard force to Odesa, where it could be seen Monday patrolling the streets.

The goals of the pro-Russian insurgency are ostensibly broader powers of autonomy for the region, but some insurgents do favour separatism.

Leaders of the anti-government movement say they plan to hold a referendum on autonomy for eastern regions on May 11, although visible preparations for the vote have to date been virtually negligible.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has put the blame for the unrest squarely on Kyiv, which it says "stubbornly continues to wage war against the people of its own country." The ministry has urged what it called the "Kyiv organizers of the terror" to pull back their troops from the east and hold peaceful negotiations to resolve the crisis.

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