Separatists in eastern Ukraine call for Russian 'peacekeepers' after deadly gunfight

Separatists in eastern Ukraine call for Russian 'peacekeepers' after deadly gunfight

SLAVYANSK - Agence France-Presse
Separatists in eastern Ukraine call for Russian peacekeepers after deadly gunfight

A bouquet is seen atop a pro Russia barricade after a deadly night fight between an unidentified gun man and pro-Russian activists in the village of Bulbasika near Slovyansk, April 20. AP PHoto

Pro-Kremlin rebels in east Ukraine appealed April 20 for Russian "peacekeepers" to sweep in after a deadly gunfight killed at least two of their militants, shattering an Easter truce and sparking "outrage" in Moscow.

But the Western-backed authorities in Kiev claimed the violence was a set-up by Russia to create a pretext for it to send troops in.

The attack, near the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, undermined an accord worked out in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine and Western powers on April 17 under which "illegal armed groups" were to surrender their weapons.

The deal, aimed at easing what has become the worst crisis between Washington and Moscow since the end of the Cold War, now appears to have stalled.

Russia has an estimated 40,000 troops massed on Ukraine's border in what NATO says is a state of readiness to invade, while the United States, according to The Washington Post, is preparing to send ground troops to neighbouring Poland.

Sunday's gun battle occurred in a village 18 kilometres est of Slavyansk.  Vladimir, a masked 20-year-old pro-Russian rebel who said he was at the scene of the shootout, told AFP: "Four cars pulled up to our roadblock around 1 a.m. We wanted to conduct a check, and then they opened fire on us with automatic weapons."       

He said three of the militants were killed. An AFP photographer saw the bodies of two militants laid out in a truck near the scene.

The identity of the assailants, who escaped before militant reinforcements arrived, was not known. The leader of the separatist rebels in Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, said he believed two of the attackers were also killed.

He declared a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew in Slavyansk - and appealed for Russian President Vladimir Putin to send in Russian troops as "peacekeepers to defend the population against the fascists".         Later, he said: "If you can't send peacekeeping forces, send us weapons."

Russia 'outraged'

Putin has said he "very much hopes" he will not have to send his forces into Ukraine, but asserts he has a "right" to do so.

On Sunday, Russia's foreign ministry declared its "outrage" at the deadly attack.

It blamed the deaths of the "innocent civilians" on ultra-nationalists who were at the vanguard of the street protests that forced the February ouster of Ukraine's pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.

The ministry said locals had found the attackers' cars containing weapons, satellite maps and business cards belonging to the ultra-nationalist group Right Sector. It demanded that Kiev abide by the Geneva accord.

But a Right Sector spokesman told AFP that Russia's claims were "lies" and "propaganda" designed to portray the east as ungovernable for Kiev.

Ukraine's government, confirming three people were killed, described the latest violence as a "cynical provocation" by Russian-armed separatists.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who travelled to the east April 20 to inspect troops in the region, said investigations were ongoing into the shootout.

The gunfight ended days of relative calm underpinned by a promise by the Western-backed authorities in Kiev to suspend military operations to oust the rebels over Easter.

The last deadly clash was last April 17, when three pro-Russian militants were killed by Ukrainian soldiers when they tried to attack a military base in the southeast port city of Mariupol.