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Ukrainian Troops Battle Pro-Russian Insurgents

In Ukraine, there's been renewed fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatists. The Ukrainian military is working to retake cities near the border with Russia.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Let's get an update now on a struggle starting to look more like a war in Ukraine. At least four Ukrainian soldiers and 30 pro-Russian fighters have been killed in this latest round of fighting as the government tries to retake cities near the border with Russia. Several Ukrainian helicopters have been shot down by well-armed separatists.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been following the fighting from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Good Morning.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, Soraya, the latest fighting is the result of a military operation that the Ukrainian government started last week. It's aiming to push pro-Russian separatists out of government buildings that they've been occupying in the eastern Ukraine. So how is that operation going?

NELSON: Well, it's not going very well for the Ukrainian forces, at least according to officials here in Kiev. Kiev accuses the pro-Russian separatists who are fighting of having Chechens and Russians and Crimeans among them, that these are not local forces. And they say they're also using large-caliber weapons and mortars. And they say they're not making a lot of progress. I mean, the fighting is so concentrated around the city of Slavyansk, where it began. Another helicopter went down. In this case, though, the crew escaped because they apparently had crashed into a river bed once it was shot down.

MONTAGNE: And what effect is this fighting going to have on the presidential elections in Ukraine scheduled for less than three weeks from now?

NELSON: Well, this is something that authorities here are very worried about, because the feeling is if there is not a credible election - and how can you hold one if there's violence going on, if separatists are going to be intervening, which they said they will? You know, how, in fact, do you hold a credible election? And if you don't, then will the part of the country that's more pro-Russian accept it? And so this is something that's of great concern, and it seems like it's going to be a real problem to try and organize this in time.

The other issue, of course, is that the separatists are holding their own referendum on May 11th to determine whether or not their part of the country should secede.

MONTAGNE: So you're talking about the eastern part of Ukraine's seceding, or trying, to the way Crimea already did?

NELSON: Exactly. This is something that the pro-Russian separatists who are organizing this resistance want.

MONTAGNE: Now, another turn of events, the airport in the regional capital there is closed today. What's going on there?

NELSON: Yes. This is the airport in Donetsk. And it was an announcement by the Ukrainian aviation authorities that they were closing the airspace for the time being. It will be reopened in the coming hours to domestic traffic, but not to flights coming from Russia. They're not saying why they're doing this, except that this probably has to do with the May 9th Victory Day, which is the celebration of the Soviet victory over the Nazis in World War II. And that is expected to drive up more tensions, and they don't want more people showing up to agitate.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, speaking to us from Ukraine's capital, Kiev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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