SLAVIANSK: Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels yesterday as they closed in on the separatists’ military stronghold in the east and Russia launched army drills near the border in response, raising fears its troops would go in.
Under an international accord signed in Geneva last week, illegal armed groups in Ukraine, including the rebels occupying about a dozen public buildings in the largely Russian-speaking east, are supposed to disarm and go home.
But they have shown no signs of doing so and yesterday the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said its forces backed by the army had removed three checkpoints manned by armed groups in the separatist-controlled city of Slaviansk.
“During the armed clash up to five terrorists were eliminated,” it said in a statement, adding that one person had been wounded on the side of the government forces.
A rebel spokeswoman in Slaviansk said two fighters had died in a clash in the same area, northeast of the city centre. The Kremlin has built up forces on Ukraine’s border — estimated by Nato officials at up to 40,000 troops — and maintains it has the right to protect Russian-speakers if they come under threat, a reason it gave for annexing the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last month.
In St Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if the authorities in Kiev had used the army in eastern Ukraine, this would be a very serious crime against its own people.
“It is just a punitive operation and it will of course incur consequences for the people making these decisions, including (an effect) on our interstate relations,” Putin said in a televised meeting with regional media.
Reuters journalists saw a Ukrainian detachment with five armoured personnel carriers take over a checkpoint on a road north of Slaviansk in the late morning after it was abandoned by separatists who set tyres alight to cover their retreat.
However, two hours later the troops pulled back and it was unclear if Kiev would risk storming Slaviansk, a city of 130,000 that has become the military stronghold of a movement seeking annexation by Moscow of the industrialised eastern Ukraine.
At another checkpoint set up by the Ukrainian military, a soldier said they were there to instil law and order.
“Those separatists, they violated the constitution, they are torturing the country, they violated laws, they do not recognise the authority of police so the army had to move in and we will finish what we have started so help me God,” he said. The Geneva agreement, signed by Russia, the United States, Ukraine and the European Union, was already in trouble as Kiev launched its offensive to regain control of the east.
East and West have put the onus on each other to ensure the accord is implemented on the ground. US President Barack Obama said earlier he was poised to impose new sanctions on Moscow if it did not act fast to end the armed stand-off.
Putin said sanctions were “dishonourable” and destroyed the global economy but that so far the damage had not been critical.
Russia’s Defence Minister said it had begun military drills near the border with Ukraine, where it has deployed tens of thousands of troops, in response to “Ukraine’s military machine” and Nato exercises in eastern Europe.
Moscow also flexed its economic muscles in its worst stand-off with the West since the Cold War, with the government suggesting foreign firms which pull out of the country may not be able to get back in, and a source at Gazprom saying the gas exporter had slapped an additional $11.4bn bill on Kiev.
Washington accuses Moscow of fomenting unrest in the east. Russia denies this and counters that Europe and the United States are supporting an illegitimate government in Kiev. Obama said the Russian leadership was not abiding by the spirit or the letter of the Geneva agreement so far.
“We have prepared for the possibility of applying additional sanctions,” he told a news conference on a visit to Japan. “There’s always the possibility that Russia, tomorrow, or the next day, reverses its course and takes a different approach.”
So far, the United States and EU have imposed visa bans and asset freezes on a few Russians in protest at Moscow’s annexation last month of Crimea from Ukraine. In Poland, the first group of a contingent of around 600 US soldiers arrived on Wednesday. They are part of an effort by Washington to reassure eastern European allies who are worried by the Russian build-up near Ukraine’s borders.
Acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov called for the eastern offensive on Tuesday after the apparent torture and murder of a member of his own party from Slaviansk.
A local opposition activist called on the police to clear up the death of Volodymyr Rybak, a member of the Batkivshchyna party who had remained loyal to Kiev. The government said the city hall in another eastern town, Mariupol, which had been seized by separatists, was now back under central control. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the mayor was back in his office. Kiev also reported a shootout overnight in another part of the east when a Ukrainian soldier was wounded, while pro-Russian separatists in Slaviansk were holding three journalists, including US citizen Simon Ostrovsky.