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Ukrainian Forces Report Killings, Ouster Of Separatist Gunmen

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

Biden Arrives In Ukraine As Militants Seize More Buildings In East

By Sergei L. Loiko and Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Vice President Joe Biden on Monday embarked on a mission to show U.S. support for Ukraine’s embattled interim leaders as pro-Russia gunmen took over more government buildings in eastern Ukraine and the Kremlin’s top diplomat blamed Washington for the growing crisis.

Biden was to meet Tuesday with acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, as well as civil society leaders in Kiev, the capital, before returning to Washington.

Although the White House said Biden’s visit was intended to express U.S. support for “national unity and a successful constitutional reform,” the trip and other recent political missions to Kiev were cast by Russian officials and media as evidence that Washington was directing the interim government.

U.S. and Russian officials have been trading accusations of failing to enforce an agreement reached in Geneva last week. The accord was aimed at easing the standoffs in eastern Ukraine, including one that erupted into a shootout at a roadblock Sunday.

The Geneva plan called for all “illegal armed groups” to disarm and surrender key government facilities to their “rightful owners.” But the pro-Russia gunmen occupying government offices in a dozen towns and cities have refused to give up their weapons, saying the interim government in Kiev is also an illegal armed group subject to the plan’s provisions.

“It’s still too early to tell if this is going to succeed,” said Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “The ball is really in Moscow’s court in terms of whether they’re going to take this diplomatic offramp.”

All indications Monday were that the crisis was continuing unchecked.

In the town of Kramatorsk, in the north of the Donetsk region, pro-Russia separatists broke into a police station and kidnapped the police chief, the online publication Kramatorsk.info reported.

In Luhansk, capital of the neighboring region of the same name, young separatists in masks and armed with sticks and baseball bats attacked a rally by supporters of Ukrainian unity, calling people “fascists” and “traitors” as they beat them, independent Channel 5 reported. Militants continue to hold the Ukrainian Security Service headquarters in Luhansk and have captured hundreds of firearms, the UNIAN news agency reported.

And in Slovyansk, scene of the Sunday shootout in which at least three people were killed, a new influx of gunmen set up roadblocks at key intersections and commercial sites, said reporter Denis Kazansky of the regional online publication Ostrov.

“Russian commandos are allegedly hiding inside the local police station and running this growing chaos from there,” Kazansky said.

The gunmen in Slovyansk also detained five journalists — two Ukrainians, two Italians and a Belorussian. All but one were released after being roughed up and interrogated, Kazansky said.

Authorities in Kiev blame the spreading confrontation in the east on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last month annexed Ukraine’s Crimea area after a similar campaign of accusations that Russian-speaking citizens were in danger from the new leadership in power since pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in February.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Washington of having ignited the crisis.

“Instead of giving ultimatums and threatening us with sanctions, Washington should realize in full measure its responsibility for those people they brought to power in Kiev,” Lavrov said.

Biden’s visit is mostly symbolic, analysts said, but it could serve to remind Moscow that the West is prepared to help the fledgling Ukrainian government as it is being challenged by neighboring Russia.

“The U.S.-leaning interim government of Ukraine still counts very much on getting some financial assistance and maybe more than that from the United States at this crucial moment in its history,” said Kost Bondarenko, head of the Ukrainian Policy Institute in Kiev. “Biden’s visit sends a clear-cut message to Moscow that Washington may not limit its reaction to sanctions alone.”

AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic

Biden Arrives In Kiev As Russia Blames U.S. For Ukraine Crisis

By Sergei L. Loiko and Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Kiev on Monday for talks with Ukraine’s embattled interim leaders as Russia’s top diplomat blamed Washington for instigating the crisis that threatens to escalate into armed conflict between the two former Soviet republics.

In eastern Ukraine, armed militants defying a disarmament plan endorsed by Russia last week stepped up their seizure of government buildings and security facilities.

In the town of Kramatorsk, in the north of the Donetsk region, separatists broke into a police station and kidnapped the police chief, local online publication Kramatorsk.info reported.

In Luhansk, capital in the neighboring region of the same name, young separatists in masks and armed with sticks and baseball bats attacked a rally in support of Ukrainian unity, shouting “fascists” and “traitors,” independent Channel 5 reported. Militants continue to hold the Ukraine Security Service headquarters in Luhansk and have captured hundreds of firearms, UNIAN news agency reported.

And in Slovyansk, scene of an Easter Sunday shootout that left at least three dead, gunmen took over the area and barricaded its key intersections and commercial sites, reporter Denis Kazansky of the regional online publication Ostrov said.

“Armed men in masks roam the streets, barricaded at intersections, banks and jewelry stores closed after the first robbery last week, the municipal services are on the brink of collapse,” Kazansky told the Los Angeles Times in a phone interview. “Russian commandos are allegedly hiding inside the local police station and running this growing chaos from there, turning the town into a fortress of lawlessness in the middle of Ukraine.”

Biden began his two-day trip to Kiev in what the White House described as an attempt to show support for the interim government as it struggles to prevent further loss of Ukrainian territory to the Russian-speaking militants.

Biden was to meet with a visiting U.S. congressional delegation and Ukrainian civil society representatives later Monday, before talks Tuesday with acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchinov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

But his mission was being cast by Russian officials and state-run media as Washington’s search for “a face-saving exit from its foreign policy catastrophe” in Ukraine.

The Voice of Russia deemed the visit as a necessity to find a way out of the crisis created by U.S. support for the three-month rebellion that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February. Turchinov, Yatsenyuk and other opposition lawmakers who have taken over as interim leaders ahead of a May 25 presidential election are dismissed by Russian officials as “coup-installed” and lacking authority to decide the country’s affairs.

The broadcast citing Russian political analysts also referred to the reported visit to Kiev the previous week by CIA Director John Brennan, enhancing the suggestion that the interim leadership in Kiev is being run by Washington. The commentary noted that Brennan’s visit “coincided with the decision by the Kiev authorities to crack down on pro-federalization protests in eastern Ukraine.”

Russian officials insist the armed separatists in eastern Ukraine are peaceful civilians demonstrating in demand of constitutional reform to change Ukraine from a unitary state to a federation in which the regions would have broad autonomy to decide their own domestic and foreign affairs.

Negotiations on constitutional revisions were called for in a “de-escalation” plan drafted by the top diplomats from Russia, the United States, the European Union and Ukraine at a meeting in Geneva on Thursday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who signed off on the Geneva plan for Russia, joined the pro-Russia militants in accusing Yatsenyuk’s government of being illegitimate and therefore subject to the plan’s requirement that all “illegal armed groups” surrender their weapons and leave government buildings they have seized.

Gunmen holding public facilities in a dozen eastern Ukrainian towns and cities have refused to abide by the agreement until the Kiev government, which they contend is an illegal armed group, ceases efforts to recover the occupied sites from the pro-Russia militants.

Lavrov also described the Ukraine crisis as one of Washington’s making.

“Instead of giving ultimatums and threatening us with sanctions, Washington should realize in full measure its responsibility for those people they brought to power in Kiev,” Lavrov said during a Moscow news briefing, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

AFP Photo/Kirill Kudryavtsev

Pro-Russia Police Help Foil Ukraine Crackdown In East

By Sergei L. Loiko and Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Ukrainian police sympathetic to pro-Russia separatists occupying government buildings helped thwart a threatened crackdown Monday, undermining the government’s credibility and encouraging the gunmen to grab more facilities.

Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said in a statement that it planned to replace 12,000 officers in the besieged east, blaming disloyal police for the failure of what it termed an anti-terrorism operation.

Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov issued an ultimatum Sunday to gunmen holding government facilities in Donetsk, Luhansk, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and other cities, telling them to lay down their arms by early Monday.

But after local police failed to back up the security forces, Russian-speaking gunmen attacked and seized an airstrip near Slavyansk and an administrative building in the mining town of Horlivka in the Donetsk region, the UNIAN news agency reported.

One Ukrainian Security Service convoy preparing to move against the separatists was ambushed as it attempted to enter Slavyansk. A senior officer was killed and five people in his detail were wounded, the private TSN television network reported.

In an address to parliament in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Turchynov accused local police of widespread sabotage.

“The main problem is that the police, formed in the times of (former President Viktor) Yanukovich, proved incapable of offering resistance to separatism,” Turchynov said. “We will renew the police ranks in the nearest time to form a force that will be able to withstand the onslaught of the Russian aggression and separatism.”

The ambush in Slavyansk was part of “wide-scale military aggression of the Russian Federation,” the Ukrainian Security Service said. U.S. and European officials also accuse the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin of inciting the armed takeovers to unsettle Ukraine ahead of its May 25 presidential election.

The White House said President Barack Obama spoke with Putin on Monday at Russia’s request, and that he “expressed grave concern about Russian government support for the actions of armed, pro-Russian separatists who threaten to undermine and destabilize the government of Ukraine.” It did not characterize Putin’s response.

White House press secretary Jay Carney also confirmed that CIA Director John Brennan had visited Kiev over the weekend. Russia has accused the U.S. of stirring up unrest in Ukraine and cited Brennan’s presence there. Carney said Brennan’s meeting was aimed at strengthening security cooperation with Ukraine.

Turchynov called United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday to ask for U.N. troops to help restore order in the occupied cities, according to the Ukrainian presidential website. Any any such mission would require U.N. Security Council approval. As a permanent member, Russia wields veto power.

A Kiev-based political analyst said the Ukrainian government’s failure to act on its ultimatum deadlines had weakened its image and authority.

“The more ultimatums the authorities put forth and then do nothing, the more skepticism their threats evoke,” said Dmitry Tymchuk, a defense analyst with the Center for Military and Political Research. “Turchynov’s proposal today to conduct a joint anti-terrorist operation together with U.N. peacekeepers is in fact a statement of Ukraine authorities’ own impotence.”

Ukraine’s Security Service released what it said was evidence of Russian direction of the unrest: a recording and transcript of a man speaking Russian, purportedly a leader of the militants in Slavyansk, consulting with a coordinator across the border in Russia.

In the recording, the commander, code-named “Shooter,” is heard discussing the ambush in which the senior Ukrainian officer was killed. “Who did we put down? They must have been some big fish,” he is heard to say.

European Union foreign ministers met in Luxembourg on Monday to consider imposing additional sanctions on Russia, and reportedly added several more names to a list of officials and businessmen subject to visa bans and asset freezes. The new names were not disclosed.

The seizure of government installations in Ukraine’s east and south “is something that is being planned and brought about by Russia,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

U.S., Russian, EU and Ukrainian diplomats plan to meet Thursday in Geneva, but there is little expectation of a breakthrough.

AFP Photo/Alexander Khudoteply