Twenty-four hours after an Ukrainian ultimatum expired for the
separatists to lay down their arms, witnesses reported no signs yet
that Kiev forces were ready to storm state buildings in the
Russian-speaking east that the rebels have occupied.
Police said separatists had voluntarily surrendered the police
headquarters in the city of Kramatorsk.
Interim president Oleksander Turchinov insisted the operation had
started in the eastern Donetsk region, although it would happen in
stages and "in a considered way".
Amidst the deepest East-West crisis since the Cold War, the leaders
of Russia and the United States called on each other to do all in
their power to avoid further bloodshed.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave a gloomy assessment
after at least two people died on Sunday when Kiev unsuccessfully
tried to regain control in Slaviansk, one of about 10 towns and
cities where the separatists have seized buildings.
"Blood has once again been spilt in Ukraine. The country is on the
brink of civil war," he said on his Facebook page.
Turchinov said the offensive, which he first announced on Sunday,
was finally underway. "The anti-terrorist operation began during the
night in the north of Donetsk region. But it will take place in
stages, responsibly, in a considered way. I once again stress: the
aim of these operations is to defend the citizens of Ukraine," he
On Tuesday morning a Reuters correspondent in Slaviansk had heard no
shots or explosions in the town, which lies about 150 km (90 miles)
from the Russian border.
Outside the occupied local police headquarters about a dozen
civilians manned barricades that have been built up overnight with
more tires and wooden crates. A dozen or so armed Cossacks — paramilitary fighters descended from Tsarist-era patrolmen — stood
guard at the mayor's offices. Shops were functioning as usual and
bread supplies were normal.
"The night passed quickly, thank God. There have been lots of rumors
of violence, but it's been very quiet here. We are in control," said
one civilian on the barricades outside the police station, who gave
his name only as Rustam.
GREATLY EXAGGERATED STORIES
Ukraine's security forces have been in some disarray since
protesters ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich in
February. However, the delays to the crackdown may also reflect a
desire by the interim leadership to avoid making things worse by
causing civilian casualties.
Moscow accuses Kiev of provoking the crisis by ignoring the rights
of citizens who use Russian as their first language, and has
promised to protect them from attack. It has also highlighted the
presence of far-right nationalists among Kiev's new rulers.
However, a United Nations report on Tuesday cast doubt on whether
Russian-speakers were seriously threatened, including those in
Crimea who voted to join Russia after Moscow forces had already
seized control of the Black Sea peninsula.
"Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian
community, these were neither systematic nor widespread," said the
report by the U.N. human rights office.
The report, issued after two visits to Ukraine last month by
Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic, cited
"misinformed reports" and "greatly exaggerated stories of harassment
of ethnic Russians by Ukrainian nationalist extremists".
These, it said, "had been systematically used to create a climate of
fear and insecurity that reflected on support to integration of
Crimea into the Russian Federation".
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied accusations from both
Kiev and the West that Russia was stirring up the separatists in the
east and southeast as a possible prelude to repeating its annexation
"Ukraine is spreading lies that Russia is behind the actions in the
southeast. This is a total lie that supposes that those residents
there are completely incapable of protesting of their own will,"
Lavrov said on a visit to China.
Lavrov called on Kiev to hold
back before a meeting between Russia, the European Union, the United
States, and Ukraine planned for Geneva on Thursday. "You can't send
in tanks and at the same time hold talks," he said. "The use of
force would sabotage the opportunity offered by the four-party
negotiations in Geneva."
Moscow says it wants constitutional change in Ukraine to give more
powers to Russian-speaking areas, where most of the country's heavy
industry lies, while the secessionists have demanded Crimean-style
referendums in their regions.
Kiev opposes anything that might lead to the dismemberment of the
country. But in an attempt to undercut the rebels' demands,
Turchinov has held out the prospect of a nationwide referendum on
the future shape of the Ukrainian state.
Lavrov said Kiev's apparent willingness to "resolve through
negotiations all the problems relating to the legal demands of the
inhabitants of the south-east regions of Ukraine, is certainly a
step in the right direction, albeit very belated".
U.S. President Barack Obama criticized Russia in a telephone call
with President Vladimir Putin on Monday, saying its actions were not
conducive to a diplomatic solution.
"The president emphasized that all irregular forces in the country
need to lay down their arms, and he urged President Putin to use his
influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to
depart the buildings they have seized," the White House said in a
Moscow put the onus for peace on Washington. "President Putin called
on Barack Obama to do his utmost to use the opportunities that the
United States has to prevent the use of force, and bloodshed," the
Kremlin said in a statement.
NATO states have sent troops, aircraft and ships to eastern Europe
to reassure nervous post-communist alliance members, including the
Baltic states — which were once Soviet republics — as well as
Romania and Bulgaria.
A Russian fighter aircraft made repeated low-altitude, close-range
passes near a U.S. ship in the Black Sea over the weekend, the
Pentagon said, condemning the action at a time of heightened
The White House has warned Russia it would face further costs over
its actions in Ukraine, but it made clear that the United States was
not considering lethal aid for Ukraine.
(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev, Alessandra Prentice
in Moscow; Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay
in Geneva; Missy Ryan, Jeff Mason and Arshad Mohammed in Washington;
writing by David Stamp; editing by Will Waterman and Giles Elgood)
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