Pro-Russian soldiers enter eastern Ukraine city

Pro-Russian and pro-Kiev forces appear to be girding for battle for control of city of Slavyansk.

Pro-Russian and pro-Kiev forces appear to be girding for battle for control of city of Slavyansk.

SLAVYANSK, Ukraine - Pro-Russian forces and forces loyal to the Ukrainian government in Kiev appeared Wednesday morning to be girding for battle in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk.

Six tanks flying the Russian flag and carrying perhaps 150 heavily armed men entered the city Wednesday morning, pulled up in front of a government building already occupied by pro-Russian forces, and began clearing the area of civilians. Two Ukrainian helicopters circled overhead, then, close to noon, two Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter jets swooped low ever the city.

Forces loyal to the Ukrainian government had already enclosed the city on three sides a day earlier, leaving only one way out. 

But late in the afternoon local pro-Russian residents prevented 14 Ukrainian tanks from the city by blocking the road 12 miles (20 kilometers) outside the city.

Rebels are telling people to leave the city, and many have already fled. Cathedral bells are ringing -- sounding either a warning, a summons, or both.

“We are telling everyone to leave," a rebel check-point commander said. "You too get out. They will launch an offensive anytime now.”

The pro-Russian forces wore camouflage uniforms with no national insignia or indication of rank. They wore orange and black ribbons of St George, Russian symbols of military valor. Their faces were covered.

They were armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles, anti-tank grenades, sniper's rifles and pistols. A man who appeared to be the leader of the group said 10 more tanks would arrive later Wednesday.

He also said the force was composed of local self-defense groups and defectors from the Ukrainian military who switched sides after having been helicoptered into the area on Tuesday.

The flashpoint is a government building occupied days ago by armed pro-Russian men. 

Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov announced Tuesday afternoon the start of the operational phase of an anti-terror campaign in the country’s east.

The so-called rebel stronghold of Slavyansk has been in lockdown, according to an Anadolu Agency correspondent. The rebels, backed by some of the local police, are refusing to surrender to the Ukrainian government after a deadline for pro-Russian groups to surrender expired Monday morning.

Copyright © 2014 Anadolu Agency