SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — At least 14 people were killed and scores were wounded as government forces seeking to win back this eastern Ukrainian city from pro-Russia separatists ran into an ambush Monday set up by the rebel gunmen.
Operations by the Interior Ministry, army and national guard troops for the past two weeks erupted in a massive shootout as their armed convoy rolled into Semyonvka, a suburb of Slovyansk. They were met by separatists firing Kalashnikovs, grenade launchers and large-caliber machine guns.
The gunbattle underscored the tough resistance government forces have faced in confronting the rebels — directed, they say, by Moscow — who have seized control in more than a dozen towns and cities in eastern and southern Ukraine in a bid for greater autonomy, independence or annexation by Russia.
Witnesses described the scene outside Slovyansk, one of the centers of the rebellion, as harrowing, especially after a gas station exploded in a wall of flame.
"For a moment I lost my hearing as my car was shaken by an explosion behind," said Alexei Sergiyenko, a 36-year-old factory worker who had just refueled his car at the station. "I stopped the car about (110 yards) from the place, ran out and lay behind it."
Sergiyenko said gunfire continued for about five minutes. When he drove back into town, two armored vehicles carrying more than a dozen gunmen and flying the white flags of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic rolled past him toward the battle.
The Interior Ministry said government forces suffered four dead and 30 injured, UNIAN news agency reported. Seven rebels were killed and three were injured, said Vyachislav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk. In addition, three civilians were killed and 15 were wounded.
"They are using a cunning in-and-out tactic with us, obviously counting that we will soon run out of our manpower, given their blockade of Slovyansk," Ponomaryov told the Los Angeles Times. "But I must boast that a lot of our friends arrived in Slovyansk this weekend to help us fight the fascist junta," the pro-Russia mayor added, hinting at what Ukrainian officials say is the case: that Russians are involved in the conflict.
"We have information that 150 Cossacks from Crimea have arrived in Slovyansk to help the separatists," Security Service spokeswoman Marina Ostapenko said Monday at a briefing in Kiev, the capital, Ukrinform news agency reported.
Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page that a special forces unit was dispatched Monday to the southern port city of Odessa to restore order there. At least 46 people died in the Black Sea port Friday during a clash in which firebombs set ablaze the city's trade union building, where pro-Russia gunmen had taken up positions.