SLAVYANSK, Ukraine — Up to five pro-Kremlin rebels were killed in the Ukrainian military’s operation on Thursday to dislodge the militants from the eastern town of Slavyansk, the interior ministry said.

“During the clashes, up to five terrorists were eliminated,” it said in a statement, adding that one soldier was wounded in the assault, which also saw the destruction of three checkpoints manned by the separatists at entrances to the town.

Russian President Vladamir Putin said Thursday that the deployment of military in east Ukraine by the Kiev authorities was a crime against its own people that will “have consequences.”

“If Kiev really began to use the army against the country’s population… that is a very serious crime against its own people,” Putin said, calling the current pro-West authorities a “junta.”

“That is simply a punitive measure that will without question have consequences… including for our inter-governmental relations,” he added, without specifying the nature of consequences.

The military launched its assault on the flashpoint rebel-held town of Slavyansk by sending in armored vehicles and a helicopter, AFP journalists in the town reported.

Several armored personnel carriers drove past an abandoned rebel roadblock in flames to take up position at the entry to the town.

Shooting was heard as a helicopter flew overhead. Pro-Russian gunmen in the town retreated to defensive positions.

A spokeswoman for the separatists, Stella Khorocheva, told AFP that all civilians had been ordered out of the insurgent-held town hall.

“The armed men handling the defense of the town hall will remain,” she said.