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Ukraine Accuses Russia Of Downing Plane; Moscow Attacks New Sanctions

By Victoria Butenko and Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian official on Thursday accused Russian forces of shooting down one of his nation’s warplanes the day before near their shared border, raising tensions between the two nations as Ukrainian troops continued their campaign against pro-Russia insurgents.

The accusation came amid strong criticism from Moscow of the Obama administration’s imposition Wednesday of additional sanctions on Russia over the conflict.

Andrey Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security Council, said a Russian warplane shot down the Ukrainian Su-24 jet with a missile over the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.

“On July 16 at about 19:00 Russia carried out another provocation,” Lysenko said at a briefing in Kiev. “A Russian Federation armed forces plane delivered a missile strike at a Ukraine armed forces Su-25 jet which was carrying out tasks over the territory of Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian jet crashed but the pilot ejected safely and was rescued, Lysenko said.

The charge came hours after Washington imposed new economic sanctions against Russia, accusing it of failing to deescalate the armed conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region.

President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the new sanctions were largely aimed at punishing Russia for not preventing the flow of weapons into Ukraine to supply pro-Russia rebels seeking independence from Ukraine.

“I have repeatedly made it clear that Russia must halt the flow of weapons and fighters across the border into Ukraine,” Obama said. “I have made this clear directly to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.”

Moscow did not respond to Ukraine’s accusation of shooting down its plane but vehemently denounced the imposition of new sanctions on Thursday.

“We view the new package of sanctions against Russia as a primitive attempt at revenge for the fact that the events in Ukraine are not unfolding according to Washington’s scenario,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a televised statement.
“The outrageous and ungrounded desire to blame Russia for the civil war in the neighboring country, which stemmed from the deep internal crisis and has already led to numerous casualties, testifies that the United States’ and their Kiev clients’ strategy is to silence the people’s wide-scale discontent by force.”

Lukashevich accused the White House of “inciting bloodshed” in eastern Ukraine.

“At the same time, while trying to cynically avoid responsibility and grossly distorting the facts, (Washington) once again resorted to brandishing its favorite tool — a sanctions club,” the diplomat charged.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told a government session that “the pressure on Russia cannot but affect our budget policy and its priorities,” RIA Novosti reported.

“We will have to pay more attention to defense and security spending,” Medvedev said. “We know how to do it.”

The new sanctions could deal a serious blow to the Russian economy and its military-industrial sector but were unlikely to compel the Kremlin to deescalate the conflict, said Alexander Golts, a senior Russian defense expert.

“Among the companies hit by new sanctions are not only Russian oil and gas monopolies but some stalwarts of Russian arms manufacturing such as Kalashnikov,” Golts, deputy editor of the liberal Yezhednevny Zhurnal online publication, said in an interview. “Since this and other military-industrial complex companies on the new sanctions list are known to make all their international transaction in U.S. dollars, their business operations from now on will be seriously affected.”

“Putin has already made it clear that he had abandoned his plans of a direct military intervention in Ukraine and may not really understand the goal of the new sanctions,” Golts said. “I don’t understand why the United States doesn’t hurry to present hard evidence of the continued Russian involvement in the conflict if it has it, the way images of Soviet missiles were made public during the Caribbean (Cuban Missile) Crisis back in the early ’60s.”

News of the additional sanctions sent the Russian stock market down as much as 3 percent on Thursday and caused a significant drop in the value of the ruble against the dollar, Russian media reported.

The downing of the Ukrainian plane Wednesday followed a similar episode and similar charge by Kiev when a Ukrainian AN-26 military transport was shot down Monday in the Luhansk region. The plane was hit by a Russian missile, Ukraine Security Service chief Valentin Nalivaychenko said in televised remarks this week.

“The investigation is over,” Nalivaychenko said. “We have irrefutable proof which will be first reported to the president and then published.”

Two members of the transport plane’s crew were taken prisoner by separatists and the fate of the other six people on board remained unknown, Vladislav Seleznev, spokesman for the government’s anti-terrorist operation, told the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, in a day of continued fighting between government forces and pro-Russia rebels, five Ukrainian military personnel were killed and 11 wounded, Lysenko said at a Thursday briefing.

Earlier this week Lysenko said 258 servicemen had been killed and 923 wounded since the beginning of the hostilities in eastern Ukraine.

Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and staff writer Loiko from Moscow.

AFP Photo / Dominique Faget

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Ukraine’s President Offers Unilateral Cease-Fire As Part Of Peace Plan

By Victoria Butenko and Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s president said Wednesday that he has a peace plan that would provide for a unilateral cease-fire on the part of government forces, giving pro-Russia separatists a chance to lay down their arms and end a weeks-long confrontation that has left scores of people dead.

But his proposal was immediately rejected by one of the top leaders of the rebellion.

“The plan begins with my order for a unilateral cease-fire, after which we must immediately get support for the peace plan from all the participants” in the conflict in the country’s east and south, President Petro Poroshenko said during a visit to the Ivan Chernyakhovsky National Defense University in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

“I can say that the cease-fire time will be pretty short,” he added. “We expect that disarmament of militant groups and restoration of order will take place right after it.”

Poroshenko said his plan consists of 14 key provisions but he didn’t elaborate on them.

“The main goal is peace, but not at any price,” he said. “The entire world is looking at us, and our task is to demonstrate that even in this war we can beat the enemy and we can bring peace to Ukrainian soil.”

Poroshenko gave no indication of when the proposed cease-fire would go into effect.

Pro-Russia rebels in the Donetsk region — who reportedly had recently received reinforcements from across the border with Russia, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, arms and ammunition — apparently were not impressed with the proposal. One of their leaders rejected the plan as “a meaningless PR stunt on the part of Poroshenko.”

“He offers to cease-fire so that we would lay down arms and his troops could get at us without a shot fired,” Denis Pushilin, leader of self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a phone interview. “We could talk peace with the Kiev junta only on conditions that their troops and hardware leave the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”

That was the first step of his own peace plan, Pushilin said.

“Then we can exchange all POWs on both sides and start talks about the recognition of our republics in the presence of international mediators,” he said. “Our regions will never again be part of Ukraine.”

There were no reports of serious combat in the volatile Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine on Wednesday afternoon. However, Vladislav Seleznev, a spokesman for government operations against the separatists, said those forces so far had received no cease-fire order.

Separatists in the east and south, areas with large Russian-speaking populations, rebelled against the central government after protests drove pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich from power in February and Moscow’s forces subsequently seized control of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

The proposal from Poroshenko, who is in his second week in office, sounds like a positive practical step aimed at ending the violence, said Oleziy Haran, a political expert and professor at Kiev Mohyla University.

“The plan will also provide an opportunity for Russian mercenaries to retreat to Russia through special controlled corridors earlier proposed by the president,” Haran said in a phone interview. “But all this is only possible if Russia really stops inciting and supplying the revolt with arms and mercenaries.”

Poroshenko discussed the details of his peace plan with Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone, the UNIAN news agency reported. During the conversation, Poroshenko also expressed condolences over the deaths of two Russian TV journalists during a mortar attack near Luhansk on Tuesday and he promised an investigation into the incident, the news agency said.

Meanwhile, 16 Ukrainian security troops were wounded overnight in a rebel attack on a government checkpoint in the Luhansk region, UNIAN reported.

Also Wednesday, Poroshenko fired acting Foreign Minister Ondriy Deshchitsa and asked parliament to approve Pavel Klimkin, a career diplomat and Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, as the new minister, the TSN television network reported.

The reason for Deshchitsa’s dismissal was not given, but he created a diplomatic scandal last week after he called Putin a profane name in public while trying to calm a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Kiev.

©afp.com / Alexander Zemlianichenko

Ukrainian Panel’s Probe Links Previous Government To Shooting Deaths

By Victoria Butenko and Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Security details and special police with the government of Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovich were responsible for the deaths of protesters shot in February, officials with the nation’s interim leadership said Thursday.

Three riot police officers were formally arrested and nine others detained overnight on suspicion of carrying out sniper fire that killed scores of people in Kiev on Feb. 20 during violent clashes between protesters and police, acting Prosecutor General Oleh Mahnitsky said at news conference in the capital while discussing preliminary results of the new government’s investigation.

The officials offered no proof of their accusations, saying the investigation into the deaths continues. Yanukovich and his former aides have denied that their forces carried out the attacks on protesters.

Speaking at Thursday’s news conference, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said a special group within the capital’s Berkut riot police unit known as the “black company,” whose officers were dressed in black uniforms with yellow arm bands and were armed with Kalashnikovs and sniper rifles, are suspected of killing at least 17 protesters on Institutskaya Street on Feb. 20.

“We have identified all the people who were taking part in that operation,” Avakov said. “The degree of personal involvement of each of this special company’s officers is being established.”

The company’s commander, Maj. Dmitry Sadovnik, was among those taken into custody overnight, Avakov said.

Mahnitsky, the acting prosecutor general, said law enforcement officials were also investigating the deaths of three police officers who were slain on Feb. 20.

The violence, which capped three months of anti-government protests, led to the downfall of Yanukovich’s government in late February. The former president fled to Russia, and the current interim government is led by opponents of his rule.

Avakov accused Yanukovich’s interior minister, Vitaly Zakharchenko, of hiring criminals to attack people in the Ukrainian capital and said they were responsible for killing five people, including Kiev journalist Vyacheslav Veremiy.

More than 100 police officers from a security group known as Alpha were deployed in downtown Kiev armed with Kalashnikovs and sniper rifles and also fired on protesters for three days beginning Feb. 18, acting Security Service chief Valentin Nalivaychenko said at Thursday’s news conference.

Nalivaychenko said investigators believed that the operation was run by then-Security Service head Olexandr Yakimenko on orders from Yanukovich. Zakharchenko and Yakimenko are believed to be in Russia.

The government is investigating whether the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor agency of the KGB, played a role in attacks on protesters, Nalivaychenko said. 32 armed FSB agents arrived in Kiev in late January, he said.

“We have sound reasons to believe that these groups that were stationed at one of the Security Service bases (near Kiev) were involved in planning and coordinating the so-called anti-terrorist operation,” Nalivaychenko said.

In an interview aired Wednesday from the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, Yanukovich denied accusations that he ordered the shootings of protesters.

“I never gave any orders to open fire,” Yanukovich said. “I always followed the principle that that no power is worth a drop of shed blood.”

The shootings of both protesters and police were carried out by opposition snipers, Yakimenko, the former Security Service chief, said recently in an interview to Rossiya-24, a Russian news television network.

The FSB also denied its role in Ukraine’s deaths.

“Let such statements be on the conscience of Ukraine Security Service,” an unnamed FSB press service officer told RIA-Novosti news agency Thursday.

The then-opposition forces were responsible for the deadly sniper fire in Kiev, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in televised remarks last week. “I can’t confirm it by 100 percent, but there are very many facts which point that way,” Lavrov said.

Nonetheless, the preliminary findings announced in Kiev on Thursday match video images taken at the time, said Dmitry Tymchuk, a Ukrainian defense and security expert.

“In the videos open to the public we can see numerous government officers dressed in black shooting at protesters with Kalashnikovs and sniper rifles in Institutskaya Street,” Tymchuk, head of Kiev-based Center of Military and Political Research, said in an interview with The Times.

“Among other things,” he added, “there is one important element in their uniforms, a yellow arm band on all of them, which indicates they were informed in advance of sniper fire in central Kiev and identified themselves for their own snipers to prevent the so-called friendly fire.”

A widow who saw her husband, a 39-year-old home repairman and protest activist, slain in the streets of Kiev on Feb. 20 said she had no doubt that the Yanukovich government was responsible.

“My husband, Volodymyr (Melnichuk), and I were standing near October Palace about 5 p.m. on that day after all the shooting was already long over when a single shot rang and my husband was killed,” Maria Kvyatkovskaya, 39, said in a phone interview Thursday. “I am glad the investigators have found out the killers were among Yanukovich’s police. Personally I have never doubted that. Who else would need these killings?”

©afp.com / Muykhylo Markiv