Ukraine army deflated as guerrilla warfare unfolds

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Black smoke rises from a shot down Ukrainian Army helicopter outside Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, May 29, 2014. Rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down a government military helicopter Thursday amid heavy fighting around the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing 14 soldiers including a general, Ukraine’s leader said. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told the parliament in Kiev that rebels used a portable air defense missile Thursday to down the helicopter and said that a General was among the dead. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Black smoke rises from a shot down Ukrainian Army helicopter outside Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, May 29, 2014. Rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down a government military helicopter Thursday amid heavy fighting around the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing 14 soldiers including a general, Ukraine’s leader said. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told the parliament in Kiev that rebels used a portable air defense missile Thursday to down the helicopter and said that a General was among the dead. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Children and their mother look through a bus window while leaving the city fearing shelling attacks during a fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian militants in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, May 29, 2014. In Slovyansk, a city 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Donetsk which that has seen constant clashes over the past few weeks, residential areas came under mortar shelling Wednesday from government forces. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

In this photo taken on Tuesday, May 27, 2014, Olga Mikhailova holds her doughtier Maria while speaking to journalists at their home in Slovyansk, Ukraine. Olga and husband Vladimir Mikhailov decided to leave the city fearing constant shelling. In Slovyansk, a city about 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Donetsk which that has seen repeated clashes over the past few weeks, with residential areas comming under mortar shelling Wednesday from government forces. A school was badly damaged and other buildings were hit, according to residents, Wednesday who told The Associated Press that several people were wounded. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Olga Mikhailova, left, and her husband Vladimir Mikhailov kiss before abandoning their home with their children in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 28, 2014. Vladimir Mikhailov will stay a few days at home and then plans to join his wife and children. In Slovyansk, a city 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Donetsk which has seen repeated clashes over the past few weeks, with residential areas coming under mortar attack Wednesday from government forces. A school was badly damaged and other buildings were hit, according to residents, Wednesday, who told The Associated Press that several people were wounded.(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Olga Mikhailova, second left, and her husband Vladimir Mikhailov, second right, prepare their children to leave their home in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 28, 2014. In Slovyansk, a city 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Donetsk which has seen repeated clashes over the past few weeks, with residential areas comming under mortar shelling Wednesday from government forces. A school was badly damaged and other buildings were hit, according to residents, Wednesday who told The Associated Press that several people were wounded.(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

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SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s armed forces suffered devastating new losses Thursday, underlining the scale of the challenge the country faces in quelling a guerrilla-style insurgency that has proven to be agile and ruthless.

A rebel rocket attack brought down a military Mi-8 helicopter ferrying out troops, including a general, on the outskirts of Slovyansk, killing at least 12 people onboard.

Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told parliament in Kiev that rebels used a portable air defense missile against helicopter.

Slovyansk, a city of 120,000 people, has become a focal point for the armed pro-Russian insurgency and has for weeks been encircled by Ukrainian troops.

While Ukrainian forces may be better equipped than their opponents, fears that the standoff could degenerate into brutal urban warfare have so far held authorities back from ordering an all-out assault.

“It is extremely difficult to fight against guerrillas. You just cannot destroy them. They are not regular troops,” said Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. “It’s the classic problem which Russia had in Chechnya and the United States had in Vietnam.”

In recent days, Ukrainian troops have taken to deploying mortar shells in their bid to retake Slovyansk, causing civilian casualties and prompting some residents to flee. The tactic has produced few immediate results other than deepening distrust toward the government and instilling fear.

“They are shooting at us from grenade launchers, we hear explosions. The windows of our house are shaking,” said resident Olga Mikhailova, who said she was leaving the city for the safety of her family. “I have four children. It is terrifying being here, because I am afraid for their lives.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday denounced the use of aircraft and artillery against the rebels and demanded that Kiev end a “fratricidal war and launch a real political dialogue with all political forces and representatives of the regions.”

The ministry said it would be impossible to restore peace in Ukraine without ending the government’s military action against the rebels and withdrawing Ukrainian troops from the east. It called on the West to use its clout with Kiev to “stop Ukraine from sliding into a national catastrophe.”

The Kiev government condemns the insurgency as the work of “terrorists” bent on destroying the country and accuses Russia of fomenting it. Russia denies the accusations, saying it has no influence over rebels, who insist they are only protecting the interests of Russian-speakers in the east.

Ukraine’s military effort has been hindered by a lack of experience in waging operations of the sort underway in eastern Ukraine.

The military, police troops, a newly formed National Guard and a number of often unaccountable volunteer battalions are all ostensibly operating under an “anti-terrorism operation,” but it is clear communication has been poor. And lack of military prowess among the most freshly minted units often shows.

“As they have

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