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Ukraine launches offensive against rebels in eastern city of Slovyansk

Ukrainian army paratroopers move into position in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Monday, June 2, 2014. Hundreds of armed insurgents attacked a border guards’ camp in the city of Luhansk, eastern Ukraine Monday, as rebels nearby promised safety for the officers if they surrendered the base and lay down their arms. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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Ukrainian army paratroopers move into position in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Monday, June 2, 2014. Hundreds of armed insurgents attacked a border guards’ camp in the city of Luhansk, eastern Ukraine Monday, as rebels nearby promised safety for the officers if they surrendered the base and lay down their arms. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine - Ukrainian troops on Tuesday launched an offensive against pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern city of Slovyansk and advanced through the city's outskirts, the nation's interior minister said.

Arsen Avakov said that government troops broke through rebel positions around the village of Semenovka on the eastern fringe of Slovyansk. "An active offensive stage of the counterterrorist operation is underway in Slovyansk," he wrote on his Facebook page.

Local residents said that several Ukrainian combat jets and helicopter gunships attacked rebel positions on the eastern outskirts of Slovyansk, and heavy artillery barrages have continued throughout the day.

An AP journalist heard sustained gun and artillery fire and saw plumes of black smoke rising over the city. Ukrainian combat jets could be seen flying over the city.

Avakov warned residents in Slovyansk and the nearby cities of Kramatorsk and Krasny Liman to stay at home.

A Ukrainian military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media, said one serviceman was killed and 13 others were wounded when their vehicle came under rebel fire near Slovyansk.

The Interfax news agency quoted Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the leader of insurgents in Slovyansk, as saying that his men downed a Ukrainian jet and a helicopter gunship. The information, which was denied by the Ukrainian military, couldn't be independently confirmed.

Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly announced an escalation in armed operations, only to eventually back down. Government forces have in recent days been noticeably reinforced to the north of Slovyansk, however, and deployment of air power over the past week has signalled increased determination.

Slovyansk, which sits on a strategic highway, has seen daily fighting between government forces and the rebels, who have seized government buildings and set up checkpoints around the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk that form Ukraine's industrial heartland.

The fighting has escalated following the May 25 presidential election won by billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko, with rebels launching an attack on Donetsk airport and shooting down a government helicopter over Slovyansk.

On Monday, hundreds of rebels armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades mounted a daylong siege of a border guards base on the outskirts of Luhansk that co-ordinates the protection of Ukraine's border with Russia. Border guards said they killed at least five rebels in repelling the attack.

Rebels in Luhansk said that eight people were killed and another 28 were wounded Monday when a Ukrainian jet fired rockets at the regional administration building that the insurgents had turned into their headquarters.

The Ukrainian military denied launching the attack and said that the building was hit by a rebel rocket that misfired, but an observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Tuesday that the building was hit by an air raid.

Ukraine's acting chief prosecutor, Oleh Makhnitskiy, said Tuesday that 181 people, including 59 Ukrainian servicemen, have been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine and another 293 have been wounded. With the insurgents controlling several cities in the east, the death toll released by Makhnitskyi is likely to be incomplete.

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Efrem Lukatsky near Izyum, Ukraine contributed to this report.

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