KIEV/KARLOVKA: Armed pro-Russian separatists and a Ukrainian militia group clashed in the east of Ukraine yesterday, leaving at least two dead and heightening tension ahead of a presidential election called to draw a line under six months of bloody upheaval.
Kiev’s pro-Western leaders hope tomorrow’s poll will stabilise the former Soviet republic after street protests toppled Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich, sparking a chain of events that has led to the worst Russia-West crisis since the Cold War.
But even as the authorities prepared for a vote billed as the most important in 23 years of independence from Moscow and promised a suspension of anti-separatist operations on election day, the clash suggested further violence may mar the event.
A correspondent saw two dead bodies after the three-hour fire-fight in the morning between Ukrainian self-defence fighters and separatists manning a checkpoint in a rural location west of the big industrial city of Donetsk.
Reports suggested a higher death toll was likely.
“We are determined that honest and transparent elections will take place,” interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk declared in talks with two European Union foreign ministers as the bloc’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton voiced support for Kiev and its election.
Yatseniuk added that, despite separatist plans to disrupt the poll in the eastern areas that they control, he believed the majority of people there were against the “terrorists” and condemned their actions.
But Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, speaking in St Petersburg, said Ukraine was already in effect in the grip of civil war. “A civil war is raging through Ukraine. But why are we the ones who are being blamed for this?” he asked at an international business forum.
After Yanukovich’s overthrow in February, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region and stationed thousands of troops in combat readiness near the border with Ukraine.
It looks askance at Kiev’s leaders and their pro-Europe policies, which could take the former Soviet republic out of Moscow’s orbit and denies Kiev’s charges that it has fomented the separatist rebellions in the Russian-speaking east.
While Germany’s Angela Merkel appealed to Russia to accept the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) verdict on the Ukraine election, Putin sent mixed messages, saying he would work with the winner and wanted better ties with the West but fiercely criticising US policy on Ukraine.
The United States and European Union have threatened new, tougher sanctions if they consider Russia has disrupted the Ukrainian election, but many European countries are reluctant to take such a step due to close trade links with Moscow.
The OSCE watchdog has sent a team of more than 1,000 observers to monitor an election in which Ukraine’s leaders say they expect a huge turnout that will offset the loss of voters in annexed Crimea and separatist-controlled parts of the east.
The man tipped to win, confectionery magnate Petro Poroshenko, has urged voters to hand him an outright victory, suggesting that Ukraine’s deteriorating security situation might otherwise derail the election before a second round can be held.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote tomorrow, a run-off will be held on June 15, in all likelihood pitting Poroshenko against ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The fierce fire-fight in the eastern Ukraine settlement of Karlovka underlined the fragility of the security situation.
“The main threat to the elections is the illegal carrying of weapons and the moving around of people. We do not see an end to this illegal activity,” state security chief Valentyn Nalivaychenko told journalists.
Friday’s clash, which came a day after at least 13 Ukrainian servicemen were killed in another fire-fight, did not involve the army but instead two among several armed groups operating under various flags in the east.
Pro-Russian separatists, calling themselves the “Patriotic forces of Donbass”, were manning a checkpoint, one of many set up by the rebels who have taken control of strategic buildings in several towns and proclaimed a “people’s republic”.
They clashed with self-defence fighters from a pro-Ukrainian militia called the Donbass battalion. It was unclear who attacked first. But the fire-fight, in which the pro-Ukrainian militia said separatists used grenade launchers and machine guns, lasted more than three hours, local residents said.
A correspondent who visited the scene soon after the clash saw two dead men, both wearing black battle fatigues. One lay on his back by the roadside, the other lay some way away near a burned-out warehouse. He had a gunshot wound in his head.
Another fighter, dressed also in battle fatigues, was clenching his fists in pain as paramedics tended his leg wounds.
“A small unit was on the road doing reconnaissance and it ran into a roadblock where there were many more separatists than us. They opened sniper fire, they had armoured personnel carriers and machineguns,” said Semen Semenchenko, commander of the pro-Ukrainian militia force.