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Putin Insists Crimea Is Historically Part Of Russia

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday defended Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and implied that the “strategically important” peninsula will remain part of Russia “from now and forever.”

In his State of the Union address, delivered in the Kremlin, Putin called a controversial March referendum in Crimea, which backed breaking away from Ukraine, and the local parliament’s decision to join Russia “absolutely legitimate” even though thousands of Russian troops in unmarked uniforms had earlier in the month already taken control of most of the peninsula and were effectively blocking all Ukrainian army and navy bases.

Putin called “the reunification” of Russia and Crimea a historic event.

“For our country, for our people this event has a special meaning, because our people live in Crimea and the territory itself is strategically important,” Putin said. “It was here in Crimea in ancient Khersones, or Korsun as the chroniclers called it, that Count Vladimir was baptized (in the 10th century) to then baptize the rest of Rus.”

Putin added that the historic landmarks of Crimea have “a sacred meaning” for Russians, as important “as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for those who profess Islam and Judaism.”

At these words the audience — consisting of lawmakers, officials and clergy — broke into long applause.

Putin said Russia has always supported Ukraine’s sovereignty but he denounced “the state coup, the armed capture of power in Kiev last February,” when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was forced from power in the wake of mass protests of his decision to forgo an economic deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.

“We see today in Ukraine that the tragedy in its southeast completely proves the righteousness of our position,” he said, referring to the region’s continued conflict between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia separatists.

Officials in Kiev, Washington and European capitals charge that the separatists are supported by Moscow, but Putin on Thursday again blamed the West, namely the United States, for interfering and inciting violence in Ukraine.

“It is not for nothing that I mention our American friends, as they directly or from behind the wings always influence our relations with our neighbors,” Putin said. “Sometimes you don’t even know who it is best to talk with: to the governments of some countries or directly with their U.S. guardians and sponsors.”

Putin didn’t mention reported Russian military involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, laying the blame for the violence completely on Kiev and its “sponsors.” However, NATO officials say they have more than once observed Russian armed convoys crossing the unprotected border into Ukraine.

Russia continues to support Ukraine’s economy despite the strained relations with Kiev, Putin said.

Since the revolution in Ukraine began in November 2013, Russia has invested over $32 billion in direct credits and natural gas supplies, the Russian leader said.

Putin called Western governments’ economic sanctions against Russia “a nervous reaction of the United States and its allies to our position” on Ukraine. For its part, Russia announced that it is banning the import of U.S. poultry beginning Friday, RIA Novosti reported Thursday.

In Cold War-style rhetoric, Putin also charged that the Western sanctions are just a pretext to prevent Russia from expanding its influence in the world.

“Every time somebody thinks that Russia has become too strong and independent, these instruments are immediately applied,” he said. “However, it is senseless to speak to Russia from a position of force.”

In the end of the passage, Putin compared the Western efforts to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s attempts to bring Russia down.

“Even Hitler, given all his misanthropic ideas, failed in his attempts to destroy Russia and push us beyond the Ural Mountains,” Putin said. “Everybody should remember how this ends.”

Putin also again blamed the United States for withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and for trying to create an ABM system in Europe close to Russian borders.

“No one will ever achieve a military supremacy over Russia,” Putin charged. “Our army is modern and combat-ready. As they say now, it is polite but powerful. We will have enough forces, will and fortitude to protect our freedom.”

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address at the Kremlin in Moscow, on December 4, 2014 (AFP/Alexei Nikolsky)

Ukraine’s Chief Says Most Russian Forces Gone, Vows More Local Powers

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Russia has withdrawn about 70 percent of the armed groups it sent into eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said Wednesday, quoting his nation’s intelligence sources.

“That gives us a real hope that peace efforts have good prospects,” Poroshenko said in televised remarks before parliament, referring to a cease-fire agreement reached last week.

The truce brought relief from a five-month conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists — backed, Ukraine and NATO have said, by Russian mercenaries and later Russian troops — that has claimed more than 3,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in the east.

Poroshenko said that about 700 Ukrainian servicemen had been freed by the separatists, with about 500 more expected to be released in the next few days.

Poroshenko also said a bill would be submitted to parliament next week granting more powers to local authorities in Ukraine in an attempt to answer the demands of separatists in the east.

“I may agree that most likely we will not be delighted with the personalities of local lawmakers to be elected” in some areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east, he said. “But is it better if policy be enforced by bursts of automatic fire and Grad (missile system) salvos rather than by ballot papers?”

Nonetheless, he insisted that “Ukraine didn’t make any concessions on the issues of its territorial integrity” when it agreed to the truce.

“I stress it once again: Now the war of independence is going on, no less, no more, for the existence of our state and we will surrender the issues of our sovereignty or independence or territorial integrity to no one,” he said. And despite expressing hope for the peace process, he added: “I will be frank, God alone knows how long the cease-fire will last.”

Though the truce had largely been observed, Ukrainian military spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko said Wednesday that “terrorists and Russian military carried out 20 provocations and shooting attacks” on Ukrainian forces over the previous 24 hours.

Poroshenko referred to Russia as “the military might No. 1 in Europe, whose forces have been constantly undergoing modernization in the last 10 to 15 years (and) possess the most modern and the most perfect weaponry today.”

“Unfortunately this is a lasting military threat,” he said. “It will not go away even if the current crisis is resolved in the nearest times. We need to learn to live in such conditions.”

The Russian threat may remain in force “not for months or years but even for dozens of years,” he said, suggesting not only that Ukraine should continue to build up and rearm its armed forces but to erect more effective fortifications on the border with Russia.

Three new lines of defense are already being set up on the approaches to Mariupol, the second-largest industrial city in the Donetsk region along the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian government and NATO say Russian troops crossed the border near Mariupol to back up separatists during a fierce battle outside the city in the days leading up to the cease-fire.

Reflecting the theme raised by Poroshenko about the threat from Ukraine’s neighbor, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that his nation was planning to develop new weapon systems, including strategic nuclear arms.

“We are doing it only as a response measure,” Putin said in televised remarks speaking at a meeting with a group of the country’s arms manufacturers. “We won’t get ourselves drawn into (an arms race).”

A Ukrainian political expert said Wednesday that the truce most probably will last through Ukrainian parliamentary elections planned for Oct. 26.

AFP Photo/Philippe Desmazes

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Ukraine President Says ‘Understanding’ On Cease-Fire Reached

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

An understanding on steps to a cease-fire in the volatile regions of southeast Ukraine has been reached between Kiev and Moscow, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Wednesday.

During a telephone conversation between Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, a “mutual understanding was reached in regard to steps to be taken to find a peaceful resolution,” according to a statement posted on Ukraine’s official presidential website.

Details of the understanding regarding a potential cease-fire were not provided.

An earlier statement from Poroshenko’s office said that he and Putin had agreed to a “lasting cease-fire,” but that language was retracted and Russian officials, maintaining their stance that Moscow is not a party to the conflict, denied that any such deal existed.

“Russia cannot physically agree on a cease-fire, as it is not a side in the conflict,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.

Poroshenko’s announcement comes months after a bloody conflict in the industrial Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, which Kremlin-controlled mass media in Russia have branded as a civil war between a “Kiev junta” and local armed protesters seeking more independence from Kiev and closer ties with Russia.

Ukrainian and Western officials have argued from the beginning that the confrontation was instigated by Russia, which they charge has sent armed groups into eastern Ukraine as early as April and supplied them with arms and military hardware. Late last week, Lukashenko accused Russia of a full-scale “military invasion” as hundreds of Russian soldiers were allegedly killed in the fighting in Ukraine and some were taken prisoner and presented to media representatives in Kiev.

Putin said publicly last week that the Russian POWs in Ukraine simply got confused and “lost their way in the border region” between the two countries.

Last week, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization released satellite images of Russian tanks and other armored vehicles rolling into separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine.

The direct Russian military involvement marked a qualitatively new stage in the 5-month-old conflict, which has claimed thousands of lives, devastated the infrastructure in the region and caused hundreds of thousands of residents to flee their homes for safer regions in Ukraine and Russia.

More than 800 Ukrainian servicemen have died in the fighting and over 3,000 have been wounded, defense officials said last week. Russia remains silent about its casualties in Ukraine, burying its dead soldiers and treating its injured in complete secrecy, according to media reports.

A cease-fire, if it comes about, is badly needed by both the Kremlin and Kiev, Ukrainian defense analyst Yuri Butusov said.

“Putin keeps escalating the conflict but he does that in stages, launching a series of attacks and taking time to watch out for world and Kiev reaction,” Butusov, editor of Tsenzor.net, a popular online publication, said in an interview. “The direct military invasion he ordered last week saved the separatist forces in the Doentsk and Luhansk regions from the looming total defeat but the situation now looks like a pyrrhic victory for the Kremlin as the Kremlin clearly presents itself as an aggressor who doesn’t know what to do with his gains.”

With the infrastructure, administration, communal services and social life in the affected regions totally disrupted, Putin appears now to be pondering whether the Kremlin has to take care of all those problems and invest billions of dollars into the resumption of normal life, Butusov said.

Kiev needs a cease-fire deal to regroup its forces, draw lessons from its recent defeats, reorganize its supplies and form necessary reserves, he said.

A cease-fire deal may not last long, warned Alexei Dmitrashkovsky, spokesman for Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation.

“We can’t trust the Russians and we don’t have any guarantees that their terrorist groups will not stage the provocations they did many times before,” Dmitrashkovsky said in an interview. “Last week, we reached an agreement on the so-called humanitarian corridor for our encircled troops to withdraw from (the town of) Illovaysk, but as dozens of our embattled troops, many of them seriously wounded, entered that corridor, they were simply butchered by terrorists who opened fire without warning.”

After Poroshenko’s announcement Wednesday, a Ukrainian military checkpoint near the town of Kramatorsk came under fire, Dmitrashkovsky said. No casualties were reported.

AFP Photo/Segei Bondarenko

Putin Takes No Blame For Malaysia Jet Downing

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

Russian President Vladimr Putin on Monday again sidestepped any blame for the last week’s downing of a Malaysian jet and demanded that international teams be ensured safe access to the crash site.

“Everything should be done to ensure (the international experts’) full and absolute safety, and to create humanitarian zones essential for their work,” Putin said in an urgent televised address that also appeared on the Kremlin’s official website. “For its part, Russia will do all it can to transition the conflict in eastern Ukraine from today’s military stage toward the negotiation phase.”

Putin didn’t clarify how Russia plans to achieve that, but again blamed Ukraine’s government for the tragedy.

“I can say with confidence that if on June 28 combat activities in eastern Ukraine had not been resumed, this tragedy most likely would not have happened,” he said. “At the same time, no one has a right to use this tragedy to achieve their narrowly selfish political ends.”

In recent days Putin has drawn international fire for the Kremlin’s alleged inciting and arming of pro-Russia rebels with weapons including sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, one of which was apparently used to down the Malaysian passenger airliner over the Donbass region, killing all 298 aboard.

Putin insisted that officials responsible for the Ukraine situation “should acknowledge their responsibility both before their own people and before the peoples of those countries whose representatives were among the victims of this catastrophe.”

The early morning timing of the address and its somewhat blurred wording indicated that Putin was more than concerned with the situation, which took such an unexpected turn for everybody including the Kremlin, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Russian senior political expert.

“Feeling that every new day brings more understanding to the question of who stands behind the downing of the plane, Putin in a statement close to hysteria in its undertones hurried to state that Russia will never admit anything and will never agree to any findings pointing a finger at the Kremlin,” said Oreshkin, a political scientist with the Academy of Sciences Geography Institute.

“Putin’s message to the world is clear: ‘Whatever you learn and whatever you say, you have no right to blame me for what happened, especially if you use it in your dirty political games.”

The tragedy has narrowed Putin’s room for maneuvering, Oreshkin said.

“Putin is no longer in a position to continue open support for pro-Russia separatists in the region, let alone deploy troops in Ukraine,”, he said. “On the other hand, Putin loses face both with the rebels in Ukraine and his radical supporters in Russia who counted on seeing a new Stalin in him and sincerely believed that he would send Russian troops into Ukraine at some point.”

Some separatist leaders are already openly calling Putin “a traitor to their cause,” Oreshkin said. “Which may explain some of the urgency that must have compelled the Kremlin leader to deliver a sudden statement in the middle of the night.”

Dmitry Orlov, a pro-Kremlin political scientist. said Putin was sending a clear message to Western leaders that Kiev authorities won’t get the flight recorders and that the investigation should be carried out solely by an unbiased international aviation commission.

“Putin has enough fortitude not to succumb to any form of pressure before the end of the investigation,” said Orlov, general director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communication, a Moscow-based think tank. “The urgency of the statement indicates Putin’s extreme concern with the situation and his desire to see the investigation proceeding in an unhindered and most transparent way.”

But Oreshkin said Putin must count on the rebels to remove and hide any evidence linking the Kremlin to the jet downing.

Pro-Russia militants found the flight recorders and were ready to hand them over to an international commission, an official of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said Monday.

“Visually they are in excellent condition with no damage detected,” Sergei Kavtaradze, a member of the formation’s Security Council, said of the black boxes, or flight recorders, in an interview with Interfax news agency. “I have spoken to representatives of the Malaysian side — (who) I hope will get down here quickly. We will hand over ‘the black boxes’ only to international experts.”

Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk said Monday that his country was ready to give the Netherlands the role of investigation coordinator.

“As the side that suffered most, the Netherlands may lead the investigation in close coordination and cooperation with all other parties,” Yatseniuk said at a briefing in Kiev.

In the meantime 277 bodies of crash victims have been found on the site, 251 of which were loaded into train cars, Yatseniuk said. He complained that pro-Russia rebels were preventing the bodies from being sent to the Netherlands.

Staff writer Steve Zeitchik contributed to the story from Kiev.

AFP Photo / Maxim Shipenkov

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Russian Parliament Revokes Authorization To Send Troops To Ukraine

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Russia’s Federation Council, parliament’s upper house, Wednesday revoked its March ruling allowing President Vladimir Putin to use the country’s armed forces in neighboring Ukraine.

The council’s action came a day after Putin asked the legislative body for the change in a letter indicating it would “be aimed at normalizing and resolving the situation in Ukraine’s eastern regions,” said a statement posted on the Kremlin website.

More than 400 people have been killed in the conflict between pro-Russia gunmen and Ukraine’s security forces in the weeks preceding the move, officials said Wednesday.

A senior Ukraine official hailed the decision but demanded more from Moscow.

“It is a positive step,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin was quoted by Ukrinform news agency as saying in Brussels. “We demand that Russia make other positive steps including support for the all-embracing peace plan” of President Petro Poroshenko.

Violence and armed clashes engulfed southeast Ukraine and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in particular since former pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich fled to Russia amid unrest in Kiev.

Russia deployed thousands of troops in Ukraine’s peninsula at the end of February, but its parliament decided to allow Putin to do so on March 1. Two weeks later a referendum was held in the occupied region and Russia annexed Crimea.

Poroshenko last week declared a unilateral cease-fire, proposed a peace plan and sent a delegation to Donetsk to conduct negotiations with the representatives of the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics, which have declared independence from Ukraine and are seeking an alliance with Russia. A Russian ambassador to Ukraine and a representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were brokering the talks.

“So-called ‘hawks’ want quick, tough military actions but others demand large-scale compromise to prevent war at any means,” Poroshenko said in a statement posted on the official presidential website Wednesday. “I will respond to both sides: Our goal is not war. … Our goal is peace but not at any price or on any conditions.”

Both sides have accused each other of repeated cease-fire violations since Poroshenko invoked the unilateral weeklong halt to a government offensive on Friday.

On Tuesday, rebels near the embattled town of Slovyansk shot down a Ukrainian army MI-8 helicopter, killing all nine servicemen on board, said Vladyslav Seleznyov, spokesman for the government operation aimed at recovering separatist-held territory in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Russian lawmakers vowed during their debate over the troop authorization measure to keep an eye out for Ukrainian aggression during the cease-fire period and respond to any violations with force to protect the separatists. But in a sign that Moscow would like to disengage itself from the messy confrontation that is spinning out of its control, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued a joint appeal with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, for extending the cease-fire beyond its Friday termination.

The Federation Council decision will help the peace talks underway in Donetsk find a solution that would curb violence, Valentina Matviyenko, the house speaker, said in televised remarks Wednesday, warning that “we will not stand aside if violence and deaths of people continue, if human rights are trampled upon.”

Russian defense expert Viktor Baranets said the Kremlin’s move was intended to cater primarily to public opinion in the West.

“Some pro-independence activists who have demanded Russian armed involvement in eastern Ukraine are now accusing Russia of letting them down, but in the region where there are over 1.5 million able-bodied men, only about 13,000 of them are fighting for independence and for joining Russia with arms in their hands while others just sit and wait for Moscow to come and protect them,” Baranets, a former defense ministry spokesman and now a columnist for a popular daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

“However, if things down there go from bad to worse the Kremlin can always send in the troops first and ask the parliament to allow their use afterward, the way it was in Crimea,” Baranets said.

AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic

5 Sentenced In Slaying Of Russian Journalist Anna Politkovskaya

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — A judge on Monday handed down sentences ranging from 12 years to life in prison to five men convicted in the shooting death of Russia’s most prominent crusading journalist.

The sentencing, however, did little to assuage the family and supporters of Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down as she was getting into the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow on October 7, 2006. The men convicted in the case were contract killers, and no one has been charged with hiring them.

“I don’t feel satisfaction, I don’t feel a thing,” Ilya Politkovsky, the slain journalist’s son, said in an interview. “We will never consider the case closed unless the person or persons who ordered her killed are found and tried in court.”

Politkovskaya, 48, who earned fame and the government’s enmity for her reporting on President Vladimir Putin and the Russian war in Chechnya, was shot twice in the body and once in the head as she entered the elevator with her hands full of shopping bags. The building’s webcam recorded the fleeing killer, a shadowy figure in a baseball cap.

More than seven years and two trials later, four men from Chechnya and a former organized crime police officer were sentenced following their convictions in the case last month.

As the prisoners smiled from inside a bulletproof glass cage in a Moscow courtroom, Judge Pavel Melyokhin read a verdict saying that Politkovskaya was killed for her work “exposing human rights violations, embezzlement and abuse of power.”

He handed down life sentences to the man convicted of organizing the murder, Lom-Ali Gaytukayev, and to his nephew, Rustam Makhmudov, who pulled the trigger.

Sergei Kahdzhikurbanov, a former organized crime officer who helped Gaytukayev plot the killing, received 20 years, and Makhmudov’s younger brothers, Dzhebrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, were sentenced to 12 and 14 years, respectively, for assisting in the crime.

All five were convicted by a jury last month.

In 2009, Dzhebrail and Ibragim Makhmudov were acquitted of suspected involvement in the case; the judge then cited a lack of conclusive evidence.

Another suspect, a Moscow police officer, pleaded guilty in 2012 to charges related to allegations that he provided the murder weapon and set up police surveillance of Politkovskaya, feeding the information to the killers. He was sentenced to 11 years after agreeing to cooperate with authorities.

Politkovskaya, the daughter of a Soviet diplomat, was born in New York and held joint U.S. and Russian citizenship. She had been among the most vocal critics of Putin and his policies in restive Chechnya, where she had frequently traveled to report on the horrors of the war, including atrocities, torture and the killings and kidnappings of civilians.

Shortly after she was killed, Putin dissociated the Kremlin of any involvement in the crime, saying her “death in itself is more damaging to the current authorities both in Russia and Chechen Republic … than her activities.” Russia’s prosecutor general personally oversaw the investigation.

Politkovskaya wrote for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose deputy editor, Sergei Sokolov, complained Monday that those ultimately responsible for her death had so far escaped justice.

Sokolov said in an interview that Politkovskaya had been killed by “a whole syndicate of killers and thugs which had operated in close cooperation with law enforcement officers and agents, and offered its deadly services to anyone willing to pay for intimidation, kidnapping or death.”

“The organizers and the murderers didn’t even know who they were killing or why,” he added.

The price for Politkovskaya’s murder was $150,000, paid to Gaytukayev by “an unestablished person,” the judge said.

The prosecution hailed the verdict as “the highest achievement of the judicial system.”

“We walked step by step with the jury, re-creating the details of Politkovskaya’s murder,” prosecutor Maria Semenenko told journalists after the verdict. “The court agreed with the jury’s guilty verdict.”

Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia’s Investigative Committee, said the investigation will continue. “Exhaustive measures are being currently taken to establish who ordered the murder of Anna Politkovskaya,” Markin said in televised remarks.

The defendants’ lawyers said they would appeal the case and take it to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

Photo: Anttiveikko via Flickr

Ukraine Reports Advances In Fight Against Separatists

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Ukrainian authorities claimed significant progress Tuesday in their off-and-on fight against Russian separatists in the east of the country, but the separatists said the claims were exaggerated.

Parliament speaker Olexander Turchinov said Ukrainian army and security forces stormed a secret “terrorist” camp in the Donetsk region, killing scores of people, and officials also claimed to have inflicted major damage on separatists near the city of Slovyansk.

“Today in the morning, many terrorists were destroyed in the camp they had secretly set up in the industrial zone near the town of Severodonetsk” in Donetsk, Turchinov told a session of parliament. “Now our anti-terrorist operation forces are conducting a complex of active measures aimed at liberating Severodonetsk.”

There were widely conflicting reports about heavy fighting near Slovyansk, a city in the Donetsk region that has been the epicenter of the pro-Russia rebellion. Some Russian-speaking Ukrainians, assisted by heavily armed Russians who have streamed across the border, are seeking to secede from Ukraine, following the lead of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia earlier this year.

A Ukrainian government official, Vladislav Seleznev, claimed that Ukrainian forces had killed as many as 300 secessionists on the outskirts of Slovyansk.

However, the head of the pro-Russia group holding Slovyansk said only two of his men were killed in the fighting, and 12 wounded.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov also claimed that his separatist forces had shot down a Ukrainian SU-25 combat jet and an MI-24 helicopter and burned six Ukrainian army armored vehicles. Seleznev denied that had occurred.

None of the claims could be independently confirmed.

An Associated Press journalist in the area reported hearing sustained gun and artillery fire and saw plumes of black smoke rising over Slovyansk. Ukrainian combat jets could be seen flying over the city.

The fighting was reported to be on the eastern outskirts of Slovyansk, with especially heavy combat near the outlying areas of Semyonovka and Krasny Liman.

“The terrorist forces are melting down,” Seleznev said in an interview with the Ukrinform news agency.

One Ukrainian serviceman died and 13 were wounded when an armored convoy ran into an ambush on the road from Izyum, a town near Slovyansk, Seleznev added.

Ponomaryov, who calls himself the mayor of Slovyansk, insisted that his forces had held their own.

“Our actions were very successful today, as we repelled three attacks and currently are holding our positions,” he said in a telephone interview from Slovyansk. “We are bracing now for a major storm of the town.”

A majority of the people in Slovyansk had already left the town for places they considered safer, said Sergei Penkov, a 46-year-old local resident.

“My family is on the way to Kherson, (a regional capital next to Crimea) as I am hiding here in the basement,” Penkov, a carpenter in Semyonovka, said in a phone interview. He said pro-Russia gunmen set up a large-caliber machine gun near his house.

“I nearly went deaf with them shooting like mad all day,” he said.

AFP Photo/Anatoliy Stepanov

Ukraine Troops Ambushed By Pro-Russia Gunmen In Eastern Town; 14 Die

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — At least 14 people were killed and scores were wounded as government forces seeking to win back this eastern Ukrainian city from pro-Russia separatists ran into an ambush Monday set up by the rebel gunmen.

Operations by the Interior Ministry, army and national guard troops for the last two weeks — often more off than on — erupted in a massive shootout as their armed convoy rolled into Semyonvka, a suburb of Slovyansk. They were met by separatists firing Kalashnikovs, grenade launchers and large-caliber machine guns.

The gun battle underscored the tough resistance government forces have faced in confronting the rebels — directed, they say, by Moscow — who have seized control in more than a dozen towns and cities in eastern and southern Ukraine in a bid for greater autonomy, independence or annexation by Russia.

Witnesses described the scene outside Slovyansk, one of the centers of the rebellion, as harrowing, especially after a gas station exploded in a wall of flame.

“For a moment I lost my hearing as my car was shaken by an explosion behind,” said Alexei Sergiyenko, a 36-year-old factory worker who had just refueled his car at the station. “I stopped the car about (110 yards) from the place, ran out and lay behind it.”

Sergiyenko said gunfire continued for about five minutes. When he drove back into town, two armored vehicles carrying more than a dozen gunmen and flying the white flags of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic rolled past him toward the battle.

The Interior Ministry said government forces suffered four dead and 30 injured, UNIAN news agency reported. Seven rebels were slain and three were injured, said Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk. In addition, three civilians were killed and 15 were wounded.

“They are using a cunning in-and-out tactic with us, obviously counting that we will soon run out of our manpower, given their blockade of Slovyansk,” Ponomaryov told the Los Angeles Times. “But I must boast that a lot of our friends arrived in Slovyansk this weekend to help us fight the fascist junta,” the pro-Russia mayor added, hinting at what Ukrainian officials say is the case: that Russians are involved in the conflict.

“We have information that 150 Cossacks from Crimea have arrived in Slovyansk to help the separatists,” Security Service spokeswoman Marina Ostapenko said Monday at a briefing in Kiev, the capital, Ukrinform news agency reported.

“We are dealing with a very well-prepared adversary armed with grenade launchers, mortars and machine guns,” Stepan Poltorak, commander of the national guard, said at a briefing near Slovyansk on Friday, a video of which was posted on the Interior Ministry’s website. “We tightened our grip around them in the center of the town, but they are not letting us come closer.”

Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said at the same briefing that the slow pace of the operation was the result of efforts to spare the lives of peaceful residents of Slovyansk.

“We are engaged in a war on our own territory,” Avakov said. “Our hands and feet are bound by the fact that we are surrounded by the peaceful population. Some of them support us, some don’t, but the point of the matter remains that Ukrainian military can’t shoot at peaceful residents.”

Fighting in Slovyansk and elsewhere in the industrialized Donetsk region has intensified as opponents of the interim leadership in Kiev appear to be trying to disrupt the May 25 presidential election. Separatists have called a rival vote for secession on Sunday.

Avakov also said in the newspaper and on his Facebook page that a special forces unit was dispatched Monday to Odessa to restore order there. At least 46 people died in the Black Sea port Friday during a clash in which firebombs set ablaze the city’s trade union building, where pro-Russia gunmen had taken up positions.

In Kramatorsk, near Slovyansk, a few hundred people attended the funeral Monday for Julia Izotova, a nurse who was killed two days earlier in a clash between separatists and troops. Among the mourners were dozens of gunmen in masks.

The government forces “are now bogged down in the heavy fighting in Slovyansk, but we are waiting for them down here to avenge the death of young Julia,” said a masked separatist who said his code name was Spets. “They can’t be at all places at once. They said last week that they cleared Kramatorsk of separatists. But now they have gone to Slovyansk and we are back in command of our town.”

Matthew Schofield/MCT

Ukraine Separatists Take Over Prosecutor’s Office In Donetsk

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

DONETSK, Ukraine — A crowd of more than 2,000 pro-Russia separatists on Sunday night seized one of the last key official sites in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk still in the hands of the country’s interim government.

The demonstrators, some armed with sticks and shields and at least one carrying a hunting rifle, marched about two miles across Donetsk and broke down the doors to the military prosecutor’s office, raising the banner of their movement from the roof.

The building was unguarded.

The military prosecutor’s office joined the Donetsk regional administration building, Ukraine’s Security Service station and other official sites now in the hands of a pro-Russia rebellion that has engulfed at least two regions in eastern Ukraine.

“Where shall we go now?” shouted a masked man in the crowd brandishing a baseball bat and a riot police shield. “What else can we capture today? There is a Leninsky (district) executive council near by. Let’s go get it.”

As the crowd started to move, two helmeted figures intervened, one saying: “Stop! We need to obey a coordinator! Where is he?”

The coordinator, a man in his early 30s, reappeared and said his brief absence was necessary so he could warn protesters inside the prosecutor’s office not to break anything and just guard the newly acquired premise.

“Let’s walk by the Leninsky council but don’t get inside, as we have done enough for the day,” the coordinator, who gave his name as Miroslav Rudenko, told the crowd.

The separatists have been seizing government facilities in the east since pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich was driven from power more than two months ago by protests centered in Kiev. They are widely viewed by Ukraine’s interim government and many in the West as being supported or even directed by Moscow in an effort to imposed Russian control over eastern Ukraine and disrupt a presidential election on May 25 that would give the central government greater legitimacy.

“We capture at least one office building a day, thus depriving Kiev junta of its power base in the city and in the region,” saud Rudenko, who represented himself as one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic. “The military prosecutor’s office was one of the repressive tools taking orders from the criminal Kiev regime.”

The protesters are hoping to hold a referendum May 11 that would create an independent republic together with other regions of Ukraine’s east.

“We don’t need to necessarily join Russia in the end but we may join (Russia’s sponsored) customs union and other alliances with Russia,” Rudenko said. “We don’t intend to participate in the presidential election to be held by illegitimate Kiev junta.”

Ukrainian officials say the ongoing rebellion in the Donetsk region has succeeded so far in part because many regional police officers have cooperated with the separatists.

“We need to fire the entire regional police force as Russia-inspired mutiny collaborators,” a high-ranking regional Security Service officer said on the condition of anonymity. “We urgently need to build a new police force of local patriots, but we are critically losing time.”

The Donetsk Security Service station fell into the hands of separatists on Saturday.

Acting Ukraine President Olexandr Turchynov conceded last week that the government had lost control over the Donetsk region and the neighboring Luhansk region, where pro-Russia protesters in a similar fashion occupied most of the government offices and the Security Service station.

In Odessa, where a violent clash triggered a fire that left 43 people dead on Friday, a district police station was surrounded Sunday by several hundred separatists demanding the release of protesters detained during the earlier fighting. In the end, police released 67 people.

“It is necessary to unite Ukraine only through dialogue, unity and consideration for every person’s opinion,” acting Premier Arseny Yatsenyuk said at a meeting with social and cultural activists in Odessa on Sunday. “The process of national dialogue has begun but has been silenced by shots from AK-100 [Kalashnikov] automatic rifles produced in Russia.”

Yatsenyuk once again accused Russia of sponsoring and inciting separatism and terrorism in eastern Ukraine.

©afp.com / Alexander Khudoteply

Ukraine Forces Move Against Separatists

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Ukrainian security forces resumed an anti-separatist operation Friday near Slovyansk, a district center in the eastern part of the country that had been seized by armed pro-Russia gunmen in April, an official said.

Nine separatist checkpoints were stormed and captured on the outskirts of Slovyansk as the town was tightly surrounded by government troops, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote in his Facebook account.

“It is a real battle with professional mercenaries, terrorists who do not hesitate to shoot hiding behind the backs of peaceful residents of Slovyansk,” Avakov wrote. “Our goals and at the same time demands to terrorists are simple: to free hostages, lay down arms and free administrative buildings.”

The separatists responded with heavy fire including grenade launchers and portable antiaircraft rocket systems, Avakov said, adding that one helicopter pilot was dead and there were wounded among the security forces.

The Ukraine Defense Ministry said two Mi-24 helicopters were shot down over Slovyansk, with two servicemen dead and several injured.

Later in the day the military detained four separatists suspected of shooting down the helicopter, the Defense Ministry said on its Facebook account.

Those who oppose the government forces in Slovyansk are not peaceful civilians but quite well prepared and armed professional sabotage groups, read a statement posted on the ministry’s Facebook account Friday.

“According to the preliminary data, the combat wing aircraft were shot down by unknown persons by means of portable air defense systems,” the report said. “They complete terroristic acts trying to destabilize the situation in the region. Neither of them realizes their actions result in deaths and wounds; children become orphans. Such behavior is common for militaries of other countries or experienced contractors who are ready to act against any person for reimbursement.”

Three pro-Russia gunmen and two local residents were killed during the morning attack, self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk Vyacheslav Ponomaryov said.

“We are holding on to our positions and are not planning a retreat,” Ponomaryov said in a phone interview to the Los Angeles Times. “All the POWs we have in custody are well and taken good care of in a safe place in town.”

Ponomaryov was talking about three dozen hostages the separatists have reportedly been holding in the local Security Service building, which they have turned into their key stronghold in town. Among the hostages are six military inspectors of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe and their translator, abducted by the separatists last week.

A pilot of one of the downed helicopters was taken prisoner by “the self-defense forces” Ponomaryov said. “He is wounded but his injuries are not life-threatening and a doctor is already helping him.”

All the roads to Slovyansk were blocked by security forces, eyewitnesses said. “There are armored vehicles and even tanks based at every approach to the town,” Alexei Shebanov, a 36-year-old local taxi driver, said in a phone interview with the Times. “All motorists are stopped, searched and ordered to turn around and go back.”

Local residents said they heard intensive shooting and explosions on the outskirts of the community in the morning.

“I was woken up by the sound of a siren and the ringing of the bells in the local church,” Victoria Filchenko, a 30-year-old professor at Slovyansk Pedagogical University, said in a phone interview. “I heard and saw numerous planes and helicopters hovering low over the town.”

The streets were deserted in the morning but when the shooting subsided, residents began to venture out, some of them helping the armed separatists to block streets with barricades of tires and trees they felled for that purpose, she said.

“I am really scared now, especially for my year-and-4-month-old son,” Filchenko said. “We are not coming outside no matter what until the fighting completely stops.”

In the early hours of the afternoon, people were emptying the shelves of the only food store still open in one of Slovyansk’s suburbs, said Anna Adam, 37, a psychologist at a local orphanage for disabled children.

“There’s a huge line of people in the shop buying everything they can carry,” Adam said in a phone interview. “Now I know what war panic is. All the other shops in the area are closed down.”

Slovyansk is considered the epicenter of an armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine that is coordinated by Russian military intelligence agents, Ukrainian security officials have previously charged. Russia vehemently denies such involvement.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin is being informed of the developments in Slovyansk, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Friday.

AFP Photo/Alexander Khudoteply

Ukraine Mayor In Critical Condition After Being Shot In The Back

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

DONETSK, Ukraine — In a sign of the deepening destabilization of eastern Ukraine, the popular mayor of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, was shot in the back on Monday, authorities said.

Mayor Gennady Kernes was in critical condition after undergoing surgery at a local clinic, said Dr. Valery Boiko, who performed the two-hour operation.

He was shot while jogging on the outskirts of Kharkiv at about noon, according to a statement posted on the city’s website. A police report said he was cycling at the time.

“The doctors qualified the injury as heavy, given the damage to internal organs,” the city statement said.

The Interior Ministry said Kernes was the target of an assassination attempt.

Police recovered a bullet cartridge at the scene of the shooting, according to a close friend of the mayor, former regional Governor Mikhail Dobkin.

“I have no theories, but if I knew who did this, I wouldn’t be here now; I would already be holding my hands around the throat of this man,” Dobkin, a presidential candidate, was quoted as saying in the city statement.

Kernes and Dobkin were staunch supporters of former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, who was ousted in February following deadly clashes between police and protesters angered by a decision to abandon an economic association pact with the European Union.

Kernes, the longtime administrator of Kharkiv, was charged with making separatist statements and put under house arrest.

In April, when pro-Russia protests spread across eastern Ukraine, Kernes, who was still officially under house arrest, persuaded the police to storm the regional administration building in Kharkiv and push out the separatists who were occupying it.

The criminal case against him was then dropped and he returned to his mayoral duties.

Taras Berezovets, a political consultant, said the attempt on the mayor’s life was a “gruesome message to other governors and administrators not to dare meddle in the Kremlin’s game.”

“Kernes turned his back on former allies and refused to support separatists in his city, and more than that, began to firmly curb all their activities in Kharkiv and thus became a target for those interested in the political destabilization in eastern Ukraine in the run-up to the presidential election,” said Berezovets, who heads Berta Communications, a Kiev-based think tank.

AFP Photo/Anatoliy Stepanov

U.S. Will Stand By Ukraine In Face Of Russian Aggression, Biden Says

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — The United States will stand by Ukrainians against Russian aggression that threatens their nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Vice President Joe Biden pledged Tuesday during a visit to Kiev.

“No nation has the right to simply grab land from another nation, and we will never recognize Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, and neither will the world,” Biden said after meeting with Ukraine’s acting prime minister, Arseny Yatsenyuk. “No nation should threaten its neighbors by amassing troops along the border. We call on Russia to pull back these forces. No nation should stir instability in its neighbor’s country.”

Biden threatened greater costs and greater isolation for Russia, already facing fresh sanctions after annexing Crimea last month, and demanded that it “stop supporting men hiding behind masks in unmarked uniforms sowing unrest in eastern Ukraine.”

“I came here to Kiev to let you know, Mr. Prime Minister, and every Ukrainian know that the United States stands with you and is working to support all Ukrainians seeking a better future,” Biden said. “You should know that you will not walk this road alone. We will walk it with you.”

He accused Russia of failing to abide by commitments to help de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine made last week during meetings with officials from the United States, Ukraine and the European Union.

“Now it is time for Russia to stop talking and to start acting on the commitments that they made to get pro-Russia separatists to vacate buildings and checkpoints, accept the amnesty,” Biden said. “That is not a hard thing to do. … We need to see this kind of concrete steps, we need to see them without delay.”

Biden pledged that the United States would provide nonlethal military aid to Ukraine. He also noted that the United States had committed to providing a $1 billion loan guarantee to help shore up the interim government in Kiev, which took power in February with the fall of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich.

Armed separatists that Ukraine and many in the West maintain are coordinated and led by Russian agents continued to hold administrative buildings in several key cities and towns of eastern Ukraine. The sites included an administrative building in Donetsk, the coal-mining region’s center, and the Security Service station in Luhansk, the industrial capital of a neighboring district.

In the north of the Donetsk region armed militants have full control of the towns of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. In Slovyansk, gunmen allegedly led by a Russian commando on Tuesday demanded additional firearms in exchange for a local police chief they had kidnapped the previous day, UNIAN news agency reported.

The separatists have insisted they won’t disarm until the interim government in Kiev does the same, calling its rule of Ukraine the result of an illegal coup.

The government Tuesday submitted a bill to Parliament that offered amnesty for separatists who surrender seized buildings and give up arms, said a Foreign Ministry statement posted on its official website.

Biden commended that measure as a sign that Ukraine will fulfill commitments made in Geneva, including holding elections next month that “are clean and closely monitored so that nobody on the 26th of May can question their legitimacy.”

“I am genuinely encouraged to see so many people in the east rejecting guns and choosing the ballot box to determine Ukraine’s future,” he said.

Biden also met Tuesday with acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, who pledged that Ukraine’s interim government would do its best to hold an “honest and transparent presidential election,” a statement on Parliament’s official website said.

For his part, Yatsenyuk charged that Russia was seeking to disrupt the coming elections.

“Ukraine needs a legitimately elected president, something Russia doesn’t want,” the acting prime minister said after his meeting with Biden, demanding that the Russians “abide by their international commitments” and “not behave like gangsters.”

In sending one of its top politicians to embattled Ukraine, the United States delivered a clear message to Russia to keep it hands off its neighbor, Ukrainian political scientist Vadim Karasyov said.

“Biden made it more than clear today that the United States will not give Ukraine away to Russia,” Karasyov, head of Kiev-based Institute of Global Strategies, said in an interview. “The most important point Biden made today was a pledge to see to it that the presidential election will be held in Ukraine on time, regardless of Russia’s aggressive meddling.”

“The message Biden voiced today boils down to the fact that Ukraine and the United States have entered special strategic relations which will help Ukraine develop as a united, free and democratic state,” Karasyov said.

As Biden was leaving his Kiev hotel Tuesday morning a hotel manager asked him to sign a guest book, the vice president said, adding: “I signed: Ukraine united, Joe Biden.”

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

Edward Snowden Asks Putin On Live TV: Does Russia Spy On Millions?

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

 

MOSCOW — Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who was granted asylum in Russia, made a surprise appearance at President Vladimir Putin’s annual televised call-in session Thursday to ask whether the country conducts mass surveillance like the United States does.

Snowden’s revelations about U.S. spying practices set off a national debate about the trade-offs between security and privacy.

“Recently in the United States, two independent White House investigations, as well as the federal court all concluded that these programs are ineffective in stopping terrorism,” Snowden said via video link from an undisclosed location.

“They also found that they unreasonably intrude into the private lives of ordinary citizens — individuals who have never been suspected of any wrongdoing or criminal activity — and that these kinds of programs are not the least intrusive means available to such agencies for these investigative purposes.”

“Now, I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in such surveillance,” Snowden continued. “So I’d like to ask you: Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals, and do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than subjects, under surveillance?”

Putin, a former KGB officer, responded with a smile.

“Dear Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent, and I used to work in intelligence,” he said, a remark interrupted by massive studio applause and laughter. “So we will talk in a professional language.”

“First of all, the use of special means by special services is strictly regulated by the law here,” Putin said. “And this regulation includes the need to get a court permission to (conduct surveillance on) a specific individual. And this is why it doesn’t have a massive, unselective character here and cannot have in accordance with the law.”

“Of course, we proceed from the fact that modern means of communication are used by criminal elements, including terrorists, in their criminal activities,” Putin continued. “And special services, of course, must react accordingly … using modern methods and means to struggle against their crimes, including terrorist crimes. And of course, we are doing it.”

But, he added, “We don’t allow ourselves to do it on a massive and uncontrolled scale, and I hope very much we will never allow that.”

“Besides,” he said, “we don’t have the technical means and the funds for it like in the United States. After all, our special services are strictly controlled by the state and society.”

Putin has said repeatedly that Russian intelligence services are not working with Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum last year. The United States has demanded that Snowden be returned to face charges of espionage and theft of government property.

His Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told the Los Angeles Times last year that Snowden has an apartment in Russia and is taking Russian language lessons.

He demonstrated the progress he is making Thursday by beginning his question in Russian. “Zdravstvuyte,” he said. “Hello.”

It was the only Russian word he used.

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

Putin: Russia May Invade Ukraine To Protect Locals

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Russia may invade southeast Ukraine to protect the local population, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.

Speaking live at his annual call-in show in a Moscow television studio, Putin implied he reserves the right to move Russian troops into the neighboring country on behalf of pro-Russian residents.

“We know quite well that we must do our best to protect their rights and help them independently decide their fate and we will struggle for that,” Putin said. “I remind you that the Federation Council of Russia (the upper house of Parliament) empowered the president to use the armed forces in Ukraine.”

But Putin added that he hoped he would not have to resort to that.

Putin’s threat suggests that Russia’s armed intervention in Ukraine is a looming reality, Ukrainian political scientist Vadim Karasyov said.

“Today Putin in fact set up an ultimatum for Kiev to either allow a wide federalization of Ukraine with vast powers for eastern regions allowing Moscow to regain its political and economic control over them without formally annexing them, or to face a full-scale armed invasion resulting from which Moscow will establish its military control over at least the southeast of Ukraine,” Karasyov, director of Kiev-based Institute for Global Strategies, said in a phone interview. “He made his terms quite clear today.”

Putin also reiterated his position that the southeast regions of Ukraine for centuries were Russian territories called Novorossiya or New Russia, and it was the Bolshevik leadership in the early 20th century that handed those regions over to the newly formed Soviet Ukraine.

Putin lashed out at the lack of democracy and attacks on opposition candidates in the course of the current presidential campaign in Ukraine and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Interim Government in Kiev.

“We consider the current Ukraine authorities illegitimate as they have no national mandate to run the country,” Putin said.

Putin vehemently denied the alleged involvement of Russian troops and agents in Wednesday’s attack on a base in southeastern Ukraine.

“This is all rubbish!” Putin charged emotionally during the TV show. “There are no Russian units, no special services, no instructors. These are all local residents … I told my Western partners: “They have nowhere to go, they will not go away anywhere, they are the masters of their land and they need to be talked to.”

Earlier this week Ukraine’s Security Service accused Russia of directing military operations in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, presenting as proof transcripts and recordings of allegedly intercepted radio and telephone communications between armed terrorists capturing administrative buildings and police stations in the region and their alleged coordinator in Russia.

Putin’s TV show was conducted as armed confrontations between separatist forces and Ukraine’s regular army, security and police troops were already raging in the region.

Ukraine Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook account that Ukraine National Guard troops repelled an attack by armed separatists Wednesday night in the port of Mariupol in southeast Ukraine on the Azov Sea. Three separatists were killed, 13 wounded and 63 taken prisoner, Avakov said.

Earlier Wednesday, armed separatists captured in the town of Kramatorsk in the north of Donetsk region compelled a mechanized detachment of Ukraine air-borne troops deployed in the area to surrender at least six armored personnel vehicles to the insurgents who raised Russian national flags over them and moved them to the town of Slovyansk under control of separatist forces allegedly led by Russian military intelligence agents.

Putin claimed that pro-Russia residents in the area armed themselves of their own accord and accused Ukraine’s Interim Government of destabilizing the region.

“Instead of realizing that something is going astray in the Ukrainian state and making an attempt to open a dialogue, they began more and more to threaten a use of force and moved tanks and aviation against the civilian population,” Putin said. “It is yet another very serious crime of the current masters of Kiev.”

But Putin for the first time admitted publicly that Russian troops were deployed in Crimea before the referendum to help it be democratically conducted.

Until Thursday Putin had more than once publicly denied such an involvement, saying the troops in unmarked uniforms who seized administrative buildings, and surrounded and blocked Ukrainian army units in Crimea were local defense forces who could have bought Russian military uniforms in a store somewhere.

“Of course our servicemen stood behind the defense forces of Crimea. They acted with great restraint but … very resolutely and professionally,” Putin said. “Otherwise it was simply impossible to hold the referendum openly, honestly and with dignity and to help the people to express their opinion. You should bear in mind that there were over 20,000 (Ukrainian) well-armed servicemen in Crimea.”

Russian annexed Crimea on March 18 shortly after the referendum, which Ukraine and the United Nations refused to recognize.

Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Ukraine Says It Has Reclaimed Airport Seized By Pro-Russia Separatists

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Ukrainian forces launched combat operations against pro-Russian separatists Tuesday and recaptured a military airport in the eastern part of the country, the acting president said.

Explosions and gunfire were heard from around the airport, located between the towns of Kramatorsk and Slavyansk. Both towns were seized last week by armed separatists, said the UNIAN news agency.

A Ukrainian SU-24 jet flew over the airport firing at separatist positions, and troops using armored vehicles followed with a ground assault, the report said.

Acting Ukrainian President Olexandr Turchinov told the Supreme Rada, or parliament, that he had received information that the airport had been recaptured.

“They have called from the Donetsk region to say that Ukrainian commandos have liberated the airport from the terrorists in the town of Kramatorsk,” he said.

Rossiya-24, a Russian television news network, said between four and 11 people were killed. The network did not say how many died on each side.

The leader of a local separatist force, Sergei Tsyplakov, earlier told Russian television’s Vesti news program earlier that Ukrainian armored personnel carriers opened fire at his forces near the airport, injuring two of his men.

Earlier in the day, the Ukraine Security Service identified the leader of the armed group holding a police station and administrative building in Slavyansk as a Russian military intelligence officer.

Security Service agents said the man, identified as Igor Strelkov, tried to recruit them earlier in April to capture administrative buildings in the eastern industrial center of Kharkiv, an agency spokesman told UNIAN.

The agency said Strelkov was heard in an intercepted telephone conversation Monday speaking to a coordinator about an ambush in which one Ukraine Security Service senior officer was killed and four others were wounded.

In earlier remarks to parliament Tuesday, Turchinov said an “anti-terrorist operation” had begun in the northern part of the Donetsk region.

He said the Ukrainian military would be careful to protect civilians. “There are hundreds of thousands of people … deceived by the Russian propaganda, and there are thousands of innocent Ukrainians nearby. This is why any anti-terrorist operation should be conducted with maximum balance and responsibility, as its goal is to protect people,” he said in remarks distributed by parliament’s news service.

Demonstrators outside parliament demanded tougher action, including distribution of arms to civilian volunteers. Turchinov said that would only increase the chance that weapons would fall into the wrong hands.

“Go work in the police or join the ranks of the National Guard,” Turchinov said. “To break windows in the Supreme Rada is not an act of heroism.”

Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Ukraine Warns Separatists To Stand Down

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Vowing that the Russian takeover of Crimea would not be repeated elsewhere in the east of his country, Ukraine’s interim president gave separatists until Monday to lay down their arms and surrender government buildings they have seized or face a crackdown by military forces.

Those separatists who don’t fire on security forces and surrender their weapons will not be prosecuted, President Oleksandr Turchynov said Sunday.

“The Council of National Security and Defense has decided to carry out a large-scale anti-terrorist operation with the use of armed forces of Ukraine,” Turchynov said in a televised address Sunday afternoon. “We won’t allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in the eastern region of Ukraine.”

Turchynov also promised concessions to eastern protesters who favor more autonomy. “We are ready to consider the issues of significantly expanding the powers of the regions and a sweeping reform of local self-management,” he said.

Earlier Sunday, an attempt by security forces to retake government buildings in the eastern town of Slavyansk stalled after a brief shootout in which at least one officer was killed and five others were wounded. Separatists also suffered casualties in the exchange, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said.

Security Service and police officers had to stop the attack and regroup after discovering that “the separatists are hiding behind a live shield of peaceful residents,” Avakov told the UNIAN news agency.

The day before, gunmen in unmarked camouflage uniforms and masks seized a police station and the local administration building in Slavyansk, about 80 miles north of Donetsk in Ukraine’s coal-mining region. They reportedly handed out weapons captured inside the police station to other activists and raised a Russian flag over the buildings.

The interim Ukrainian government fears that a large-scale security operation to retake government buildings might lead to a high number of casualties, Tymchuk said.

“Right now Ukraine leadership is faced with only two options, both being bad and worse: conducting a sweeping combat operation to neutralize terrorists and liberate administrative buildings at the cost of a serious number of casualties, or do nothing and see the eastern regions go adrift toward Russia,” Tymchuk said.

Elsewhere in the east on Sunday, pro-Russia demonstrators and their opponents clashed in the center of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest industrial center after Kiev, leaving at least 10 people injured, UNIAN reported.

In Yenakiyevo, armed separatists seized a police station and city council building, UNIAN reported. Yenakiyevo is the hometown of former President Viktor Yanukovich, a pro-Moscow leader whose ouster by the political opposition in February led to Russia’s takeover of Crimea.

About 20,000 people took part in a rally in downtown Moscow on Sunday to protest the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s alleged actions elsewhere in eastern Ukraine and the prevalence of anti-Ukraine propaganda in Russian mass media.

“I remember the days of the Cold War only too well, but even in those days the propaganda on television and in our newspapers was not so outrageously lying,” said Olga Zinovieva, a 58-year-old pensioner. “I am really, really afraid the Kremlin is thus preparing the country for a real war with Ukraine.”

AFP Photo/Alexander Khudoteply

Ukraine Separatists Hold Buildings And Hostages

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Heavily armed separatists held Ukrainian government buildings and hostages Tuesday as tensions increased sharply and threatened to push a dispute over treatment of the country’s ethnic Russians into bloodshed.

Ukrainian government officials said pro-Russia separatists had rigged explosives in a building in Luhansk and were holding hostages inside. Officials dispatched a deputy prime minister to another city, Donetsk, to try to negotiate a peaceful solution to the takeover of an administration building in that mining city.

Russia seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea region, in the south, with minimal violence in February, but Ukrainian forces have acted forcefully against separatists who took over buildings in the country’s east in recent days. On Tuesday, the Ukrainian government said it had cleared hundreds of pro-Russia protesters from a regional administration building in a third city, Kharkiv.

A move in eastern Ukraine would be far more difficult for Russia than its Crimea seizure was. The region has a sizable ethnic Russian population but, unlike in Crimea, it’s a minority. And Crimea was for centuries part of Russia.

Analysts say it’s crucial for Ukraine’s interim government to manage the discord until May 25 elections. The vote is likely to show that the government does have popular support, they said, blunting Russia’s argument that Ukraine has been taken over by extremists.

Reacting to Ukraine’s moves to impose order, Russia issued a blunt warning Tuesday in a Foreign Ministry statement: “The organizers and participants in the operation are assuming huge responsibility for the creation of threats to the rights, freedoms and lives of peaceful residents of Ukraine.”

It said Ukrainian forces had been augmented by about 150 security contractors from the U.S. private security firm Greystone, who were wearing Ukrainian uniforms.

In Washington, Secretary of State John F. Kerry accused Russia of fomenting unrest.

“Everything that we’ve seen in the past 48 hours from Russian provocateurs and agents operating in eastern Ukraine tells us that they’ve been sent there determined to create chaos,” he said in an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “No one is fooled by what could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention, just as we saw in Crimea.”

Kerry met with President Barack Obama on Tuesday to discuss several issues, including Ukraine.

After the Crimea seizure, the U.S. and European Union imposed sanctions on several Russian officials and associates of President Vladimir Putin. Kerry said the West was considering toughening the sanctions but first wanted to explore the possibility of a diplomatic solution at a meeting this weekend that will include officials from the U.S., EU, Russia and Ukraine.

White House press secretary Jay Carney praised the Ukrainian government for how it has handled the crisis.

The dispute began late last year when Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovich, rejected closer association with the European Union in favor of an accord with Russia. That launched months of street protests in Kiev, the capital. Yanukovich ultimately fled and took refuge in Russia.

The deputy head of the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council, Victoria Syumar, said in a post to her Facebook account that about 500 separatists had seized a government building in Luhansk and were holding hostages. “They have more than 1,000 firearms and some heavy weapons. (Ukrainian) special units are ready, but the risks are very serious.”

In Donetsk, tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, a former ally of Yanukovich, was trying to negotiate a solution. Separatists barricaded themselves inside the administration building behind stacks of tires and barbed wire. His appeal to protesters was broadcast live on independent Hromadske TV.

“If there is a storm, I will be with you, suffering together with you, but I want to address the government and ask them … to put off the storm,” he said.

“To fight is not an option,” he added. “Who will be better off if blood is shed?”

First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema said he had postponed an operation to clear out the separatists in order to give Akhmetov time to find a solution.

Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT