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Helicopters Shot Down as Conflict in Ukraine Escalates

VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images(SLOVYANSK, Ukraine) -- At least two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down in the early hours of Friday morning, as fierce fighting continues between the government and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine. 

Both pilots died, and smoke from the crashes could be seen for miles. One other casualty of the fighting has also been reported.

Ukraine launched its first major assault against pro-Russian forces Friday in the city of Slovyansk after a major attack from pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

Russian separatists who have taken control of Slovyansk, considered the headquarters for most of the pro-Russian rebels, responded with force, setting their checkpoints on fire. For weeks, cities and towns in the region have been falling like dominoes. Armed separatists, supported by Russia, have stormed in, taking over many of the region's cities.

President Obama will meet Friday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House, where the two will discuss further sanctions against Russia. It won't be an easy conversation, though. German politicians are urging Merkel to complain about NSA surveillance that tapped her cellphone.

Chancellor Merkel is seen as a key player because Germany is Russia's largest trading partner within Europe. More than twice the trade of the entire United States comes through Germany. As one senior official told ABC News' Jonathan Karl, there is no question that economic sanctions are more effective when they are done in coordination with Europe. If the United States is going to go forward with another round of broader sanctions against Russia, Germany must be on board with the U.S.

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