KIEV/SLAVIANSK, Ukraine: Ukraine’s armed forces plan to launch a “full-scale anti-terrorist operation” against pro-Russian separatists, acting president Oleksander Turchinov said yesterday, raising the risk of a military confrontation with Moscow.
Angered by the death of a state security officer and the wounding of two of his comrades near the flashpoint eastern city of Slaviansk, Turchinov gave rebels occupying state buildings until this morning to lay down their weapons.
He blamed Russia, which opposed a pro-Europe uprising that forced Moscow-backed former president Viktor Yanukovich to flee, for being behind the rash of rebellions across Russian-speaking towns in eastern Ukraine.
“The blood of Ukrainian heroes has been shed in a war which the Russian Federation is waging against Ukraine,” he said in an address to the nation. “The aggressor has not stopped and is continuing to sow disorder in the east of the country.”
With East-West relations in crisis, Nato described the appearance in eastern Ukraine of men with specialised Russian weapons and identical uniforms without insignia — as previously worn by Moscow’s troops when they seized Crimea — as a “grave development”.
Though the Ukrainian military did not resist the Russian takeover of Crimea with force, Turchinov threatened robust action against the rebels in the east. “The National Security and Defence Council has decided to launch a full-scale anti-terrorist operation involving the armed forces of Ukraine,” he declared.
Ukraine has repeatedly said the rebellions are inspired and directed by the Kremlin. But action to dislodge the armed militants risks tipping the stand-off into a new, dangerous phase as Moscow has warned it will protect the region’s Russian-speakers if they come under attack.
One Ukrainian state security officer was killed and five were wounded on the government side in yesterday’s operation in Slaviansk, interior minister Arsen Avakov said. “There were dead and wounded on both sides,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
The Russian news agency RIA reported that one pro-Moscow activist was killed in Slaviansk in clashes with forces loyal to the Kiev government. “On our side, another two were injured,” RIA quoted pro-Russian militant Nikolai Solntsev as adding.
Russian TV broadcast grainy footage of what it said was the body of the militant. The images, which Reuters could not verify independently, showed a man in black clothes, slumped against the door of a car, with a pool of blood between his legs. A rifle lay next to him.
The separatists are holed up in the local headquarters of the police and of the state security service, while others have erected road blocks around Slaviansk, which lies about 150km from the Russian border.
However, details of the fighting remain sketchy. A statement from the administration of the eastern Donetsk region indicated the security officer may have been killed between Slaviansk and the nearby town of Artemivsk.