Ukraine crisis: Rebels shoot down Ukraine helicopter in Slovyansk

Fighting broke out Friday around a rebel-held city in eastern Ukraine, as Ukrainian forces began a military operation against pro-Russian separatists, Voice of America reports.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov says the rebels shot down two Ukrainian helicopters during the assault on the city of Slovyansk, killing two pilots.

Avakov said on his Facebook page that Ukraine demands the rebels free their hostages, lay down their weapons, vacate the buildings they have seized and restore the municipal infrastructure.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Ukraine’s offensive Friday delivered a final blow to a faltering peace deal aimed at defusing the crisis in Ukraine.

Putin on Thursday demanded that Ukraine withdraw all military personnel from the troubled region near the Russian border. He made the demand in a phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who meets with U.S. President Barack Obama Friday in Washington.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in planned remarks released Friday that NATO’s European members need  to increase their defense spending in light of Russia’s action in Ukraine.

“We must see renewed financial commitments from all NATO  members,” Hagel said in excerpts of a speech on the NATO alliance to be delivered Friday at the Wilson Center and released by the Defense Department.

He said, over the long run, Russia will test the purpose, stamina and commitment of the 28-nation U.S.-led alliance, the Associated Press reported.

On Thursday, Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov signed a military conscription decree to deal with increasingly violent pro-Russian separatists who have seized buildings in about a dozen cities in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east.

The Ukrainian conscription decree targets 18 – 25-year-olds.

Earlier this week, the Ukrainian leader said his government was “helpless” to quell the growing pro-Russian separatist movement in two eastern regions.

Turchynov also conceded that his government had lost control of its own troops in southeastern Ukraine.

Protesters control a number of key buildings in Donetsk and have declared a May 11 referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

A similar vote last month led to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.