By Sergei L. Loiko and Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — Ukrainian government troops killed at least two pro-Russia separatist gunmen in Slovyansk on Thursday and drove away others occupying key public buildings in the city of Mariupol in an operation the Kremlin condemned as the Kiev government attacking “its own people.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the actions in eastern Ukraine and the deployment of NATO forces in member states bordering Russia to the west had “forced” the Kremlin to order more military drills of its troops amassed on Ukraine’s border.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said that “up to five” separatists had been killed in Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation” targeting armed checkpoints set up by the Russian-speaking militants in Slovyansk.
A spokeswoman for the militants, Stella Khorosheva, confirmed to the Associated Press that two had been killed in the provincial town 100 miles west of the Russia-Ukraine border. Slovyansk has become the main flashpoint in the weeks-old confrontation between pro-Russia gunmen demanding autonomy from Kiev for the territory they are holding and Ukrainian officials trying to hold the country together.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned the Ukrainian interim leadership of “consequences” for its move against pro-Russia militants who have seized a dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine in demand of local votes on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia or revise the constitution to make their regions virtually independent. The separatists’ actions followed last month’s Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula after a swift occupation by Russian troops and a hastily called referendum on secession.
“If the Kiev government is using the army against its own people, this is clearly a grave crime,” Putin said on Russia television. “Of course, this will have consequences for the people who take such decisions, and this also affects our inter-state relations.”
Putin has claimed since the ouster in late February of his Ukrainian ally and counterpart, President Viktor Yanukovich, that he has a responsibility to protect ethnic Russians and Russian interests in Ukraine and has been empowered by the Russian parliament to deploy troops to the neighboring country.
Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest in the east and south of the country, charging in a televised speech that the Kremlin has been “coordinating and openly supporting terrorist killers.”
The Ukrainian operation to take down separatist barricades and free government buildings occupied by the gunmen was relaunched on Turchynov’s orders Wednesday after an Easter weekend break when the bodies of two men loyal to Kiev, including a local city official, were found in a river with wounds suggesting they had been tortured, the Ukrainian Security Service said.
A funeral was held in the militant-occupied town of Horlivka on Thursday for the slain city official, Volodymyr Rybak, the security service reported.
As tensions escalated and Moscow and Kiev elevated their warnings to each other, Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, announced more military exercises for troops stationed along the 1,000-mile border with Ukraine. NATO officials said last week the Kremlin has at least 40,000 troops poised on Ukraine’s border and is capable of invading and taking the eastern regions in as little as five days.
“The order to use force against civilians has already been given, and if this military machine is not stopped, the amount of casualties will only grow,” Shoigu said in a statement televised by Russia Today. “War games by NATO in Poland and the Baltic states are also not helping the normalization of the situation. We are forced to react to the situation.”
NATO and the Pentagon have ordered stepped-up patrols of the military bloc’s eastern members that were under Moscow’s military sway during the Cold War.
Officials in Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have been watching warily as Putin intervenes in Ukraine on his claimed right to defend ethnic Russians and unspecified Russian interests. Estonia and Latvia have large Russian communities from the 50 years they were part of the Soviet Union, which broke up into its constituent republics in 1991.
AFP Photo/Genya Savilov