Ukraine tries to clear pro-Russian rebels, reports dead on both sides
DONETSK, Ukraine - Agence France-Presse
Pro-Russian protesters stand at a barricade outside a regional police building seized by the armed separatists to prevent storming by Ukrainian police special team in the eastern city of Slavyansk on April 13, 2014. AFP PhotoUkrainian security forces launched an operation on Sunday to clear pro-Russian separatists from a police headquarters in the eastern city of Slaviansk, with Kiev reporting dead on both sides as it combats what it calls an act of aggression by Moscow.
Ukraine faces a rash of rebellions in the east which it says are inspired and directed by the Kremlin. But action to dislodge the armed militants risks tipping the stand-off into a new, dangerous phase as Moscow has warned it will protect the region's Russian-speakers if they come under attack.
One Ukrainian state security officer was killed and five wounded on the government side in what interior minister Arsen Avakov called Sunday's "anti-terrorist" operation.
"There were dead and wounded on both sides," Avakov said on his Facebook page, adding that there had been an "unidentifiable number" of casualties among the separatists, who were being supported by about 1,000 people.
Kiev accuses Moscow of trying to deepen violence and chaos in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic it once ruled. The Kremlin, it says, wants to undermine the legitimacy of presidential elections on May 25 which aim to set the country back onto a normal path after months of turmoil.
Relations between Russia and the West are at their worst since the end of the Cold War, the result of the crisis that began when the Moscow-backed Ukrainian president was pushed out and Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Moscow justified sending its military into Crimea, on Ukraine's southern tip, by saying the Russian population there was under threat, and some in Western governments believe the Kremlin is preparing a similar scenario for eastern Ukraine.
A Reuters reporter in Slaviansk, about 150 km (90 miles) from the Ukraine-Russia border, said two military helicopters were flying over the town's police headquarters where the militants were holed up.
Earlier, Avakov had warned residents to stay indoors. "Pass this on to all civilians: they should leave the centre of town, not come out of their apartments, and not go near the windows," he wrote on his Facebook page.
In the nearby town of Kramatorsk, militants exchanged gunfire with police late on Saturday, though there was no confirmation anyone had been hurt.
In Washington, the White House expressed concern that the seizures of public buildings in eastern Ukraine could be a prelude to a Russian military incursion, though Moscow has strenuously denied any such intention.
"We call on President (Vladimir) Putin and his government to cease all efforts to destabilize Ukraine, and we caution against further military intervention," said Laura Lucas Magnuson, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Kiev on April 22, becoming the most senior U.S. official to visit the country since the crisis began there.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was Ukraine's Western-leaning government, viewed by the Kremlin as illegitimate, that was stoking the tensions.
Any use of force against Russian speakers "would undermine the potential for cooperation" between Moscow and Western powers over Ukraine, Lavrov said in a statement after a telephone call with his U.S. opposite number John Kerry.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon said in a statement he was deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in eastern Ukraine and "the growing potential for violent clashes".