Government troops drove seven armored personnel carriers flying
the Ukrainian flag into the town of Kramatorsk after securing
control of a nearby airfield from the rebels on Tuesday, prompting
Russian President Vladimir Putin to warn of the risk of civil war.
But just 15 km (9 miles) away, armed men in different types of
combat fatigues drove six armored personnel carriers, one flying the
Russian flag, into the town of Slaviansk, stopping outside the town
hall, which is occupied by separatists.
The armed men waved as they drove in, and some people waved back and
shouted: "Well done lads!" and "Russia" Russia!"
Overhead, a Ukrainian jet fighter carried out several minutes of
aerobatics above the town's main square in a clear show of strength
by Kiev's forces.
In the industrial city of Donetsk, at least 20 armed separatists
occupied the city council building, a spokeswoman for the council
The muscle-flexing and inflamed rhetoric heightened fears of
violence after Moscow-backed gunmen occupied public buildings in 10
eastern towns and cities in the last week.
The Kiev government is seeking to reassert control slowly and
without bloodshed before Thursday's Geneva meeting at which the
Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers are due to meet for the
first time in the presence of the United States and the European
Russia, which has refused to recognize Ukraine's pro-Western
government since Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich was
ousted by mass protests in February, sought to dramatize instability
in its neighbor ahead of those talks.
BRINK OF CIVIL WAR
Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a telephone call late
on Tuesday that Kiev had "embarked on an anti-constitutional course"
by using the army against the rebels.
"The sharp escalation of the conflict puts the country, in effect,
on the brink of civil war," a Kremlin statement quoted him as
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk reacted by accusing Moscow
of "exporting terrorism to Ukraine".
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in Vietnam before
heading to Geneva, said Kiev should listen to what he called the
voice of the people of Ukraine and avoid force.
"It is unacceptable to use (the armed) forces in the eastern
Ukraine," he told reporters in Hanoi.
The Ukrainian government launched what it called a "special
operation" on Tuesday against separatist militia in the
Russian-speaking East, although aside from a landing by airborne
troops the action was limited and avoided casualties.
Soldiers disembarked from two helicopters at the airfield 10 km (6
miles) from Kramatorsk, where reporters heard gunfire that seemed to
prevent an air force plane from landing.
There was no sign of violence in the area on Wednesday, but
civilians watching the armored vehicles enter the town reflected the
sharp political divisions in the mainly Russian-speaking
southeastern Donbass region.
A group of about 30 local residents blocked the APCs briefly and
tried to prevent them going through, a Reuters witness said.
Soldiers dismounted and pushed them away. One shot was fired in the
air in a brief scuffle before the vehicles moved on.
The protesters managed to take away one hand-held radio and two
rifle magazines from soldiers.
"I think Donbass should be an independent country allied with
Russia," said a local resident who gave his name as Olexander. "My
homeland is the Soviet Union. We just need to chop off the rotten
west of Ukraine and we'll be fine."
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Elsewhere in Kramatorsk, there was no overt sign of hostility as
several hundred people milled around another cluster of six APCs
from the 25th paratroop brigade from Dnieperpetrovsk. Some residents
gave the soldiers tea and bread.
But one man, who gave his name as Sergei, said the troops were
unwelcome, contrasting the use of the army with the authorities'
tolerance of a protest camp on the central Maidan square in the
"I don't like these troops. As far as Kiev is concerned, we are not
people," he said. "For some reason they didn't send tanks onto the
Maidan (Independence Square in Kiev) but they send troops to us.
Donbass will not forgive this. The country does not exist any more."
While troops were not deployed during the protests that ousted
Yanukovich in Kiev, police snipers shot dead dozens of protesters.
The United States and the EU have accused Moscow of orchestrating
the separatist operation in eastern Ukraine as it did in the
Ukrainian Black Sea province of Crimea before annexing the region
Russia, which Western governments says has massed about 40,000
troops just across the border with eastern Ukraine, denies the
charge. The Kremlin is demanding that Kiev accept a loose federal
structure for Ukraine.
On Thursday, acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov
declared a much-needed victory over pro-Russian rebels by saying the
Kramatorsk air base had been "liberated". But the government made no
immediate attempt to dislodge separatist gunmen elsewhere.
Ukraine's state security service said an "anti-terrorist" operation
was also in progress against separatists in the nearby town of
Slaviansk but there was no immediate evidence of action.
Nonetheless, Kiev's stated resolve to challenge militants it says
are orchestrated by the Kremlin, marked an escalation of the deepest
East-West crisis since the Cold War.
The standoff has raised fears in the West and in Kiev that Russia
might intervene militarily to "protect" Russian speakers in eastern
A spokesman for U.S. President Barack Obama said Ukraine's
government was obliged to respond to "provocations" in the east, but
Washington was not considering sending arms to Kiev.
The White House said it was seriously considering adding to
sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea, but the State
Department said such action was unlikely before the Geneva meeting.
(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe in Moscow, Richard Balmforth
in Kiev and Nguyen Phuong Linh in Hanoi; writing by Paul Taylor;
editing by Will Waterman and Giles Elgood)
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