Ukraine’s military offensive to reassert control over its troubled eastern regions suffered a string of setbacks on Wednesday as pro-Russia separatists seized several Ukrainian army vehicles and stripped some troops of their ammunition.
The incidents, which occurred near the eastern city of Slaviansk, come a day ahead of key talks in Geneva between top Russian and Western diplomats to try to resolve the escalating crisis in Ukraine.
On Tuesday, authorities in Kiev launched a "full-scale anti-terrorist operation" to much fanfare, sending tanks towards the eastern city of Slaviansk – which has been under the control of pro-Russian gunmen for several days – in a high-risk strategy sharply condemned by the Kremlin but supported in Washington.
The display of military hardware was the most forceful response yet by the Western-backed government to the militants' occupation of state buildings in nearly 10 cities across Ukraine's rust belt.
But on Wednesday, pro-Moscow insurgents blocked and seized a column of six Ukrainian armoured vehicles in Kramatorsk, before hoisting the Russian flag on the army convoy and driving it into Slaviansk, a hotbed of unrest against Ukraine’s interim government.
According to several news outlets, the Ukrainian soldiers manning the vehicles offered no resistance during the seizure.
One of the Ukrainian soldiers said they had defected to the pro-Russian side, but an AP journalist overheard another soldier suggesting they were forced at gunpoint to hand over the vehicles.
The military, meanwhile, said “the whereabouts of the Ukrainian servicemen” were not yet known.
The Russian Interfax news agency quoted Miroslav Rudenko, one of the insurgent leaders in Slaviansk, as saying the soldiers would be offered the chance to join a local militia or leave the region.
Residents help block Ukrainian troops
Later Wednesday, in Pchyolkino, a town south of Slaviansk, tensions boiled over as several hundred residents surrounded 14 Ukrainian armoured vehicles.
Fearing the troops were sent to quell them, the crowd refused to let the vehicles leave despite the pleas of a Ukrainian officer. The crowd was later joined by pro-Russian gunmen.
To end the standoff, leaders in the crowd told Lt. Colonel Oleksandr Shvets they would let his 100-strong troops go if they handed over the magazines from their assault rifles.
The soldiers took the magazines off, put them in plastic bags and gave them to the pro-Russian insurgents.
“We are really tired of all of this confusion,” said Sgt. Dmytro Mokletsov. “It’s really scary giving away the magazines. We have no weapons now. But we were told to, it was an order.”
The column of APCs was preparing to leave the area Wednesday evening.
In the eastern regional capital of Donetsk, armed militias seized the mayor’s office, demanding that the Kiev government hold a vote on giving the east more autonomy.
“We have come into this building so that Kiev accepts our demands, the demands of the ordinary people of Donbass, to adopt a law on local referendums,” said militiaman Alexander Zakharchenko.
NATO beefs up eastern border
In Brussels, NATO announced it was immediately strengthening its military footprint along its eastern border in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance would fly more sorties over the Baltic region and that allied ships would deploy to the Baltic Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere if needed.
“We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land,” Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels.
NATO says Russia has up to 40,000 troops stationed near its border with Ukraine. Western nations and the new government in Kiev fear that Moscow will use unrest in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for a military invasion.
Ukraine is not a NATO member but several NATO members – Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland – share borders with Russia. NATO members Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey also border the Black Sea along with Russia and Ukraine.
Moscow 'exporting terrorism'
Reflecting the West’s concern over the turmoil in Ukraine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation and preparations for diplomatic talks Thursday in Geneva on Ukraine. But the two leaders came to very different conclusions, their offices said.
In Kiev, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest.
“Russia has got a new export now, apart from oil and gas: Russia is now exporting terrorism to Ukraine,” Yatseniuk told a Cabinet meeting. “Russia must withdraw its sabotage groups, condemn terrorists and liberate all administrative buildings.”
The authorities in Kiev ratcheted up the verbal attacks on Russia, with Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk accusing Moscow of trying to build "a new Berlin wall".
Yatseniuk demanded Moscow halt its alleged support for the separatists but said Kiev remained committed to Thursday's crunch talks between the top diplomats of Russia, the European Union, the United States and Ukraine.
"There is only one directive for the Ukrainian foreign ministry -- the Russian government has to immediately withdraw its commando groups, condemn the terrorists and demand they leave the installations," he said.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)
Date created : 2014-04-16