The first contingent of US Army paratroopers has landed in Poland for military exercises amid tensions with Russia over Ukraine.
The 150 soldiers are due to be joined by a further 450 troops over the next few days.
The US contingent will conduct training exercises with Polish counterparts and is visiting at the request of Poland.
Separately, the UK, Netherlands and Denmark scrambled fighter jets to intercept a pair of Russian bombers that were spotted approaching their airspace.
Earlier on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued a blunt warning that Moscow would "certainly respond" if its interests come under attack in Ukraine as pro-Kremlin rebels in the east braced for a new military offensive by Kiev.
"If we are attacked, we would certainly respond," Lavrov told state-controlled RT television.
Russia has said it has a right to protect the largely Russian-speaking population in east Ukraine from Ukrainian "nationalists".
"If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly – like they were in South Ossetia, for example – I do not see any other way but to respond in accordance with international law."
Lavrov did not specify what he meant by "legitimate interests", but the reference to South Ossetia hinted at the possibility of military action. Russia, which sent troops to the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after they declared independence from Georgia in 2008, recognises them as sovereign territories.
The United Nations and most of the world, however, do not.
Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchinov late Tuesday ordered a new "anti-terrorist" operation against pro-Russian separatists holding administrative buildings in the country's east after the discovery of two "brutally tortured" bodies.
One was of a local politician from Turchinov's own party who was kidnapped nearly a week ago, the leader said, blaming his death on the rebels.
"Security agencies are working to liquidate all the groups currently operating in Kramatorsk, Slaviansk and the other towns in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions," Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema confirmed in remarks cited by the Interfax Ukraine news agency.
Lavrov said that the timing of the renewed offensive, which came during US Vice President Joe Biden's two-day visit to Kiev, proved that "the Americans are running the show" in Ukraine.
Kiev's offensive threatens to sound the final death knell for an already tattered agreement struck last week in Geneva between Ukraine, Russia and the West to ease the crisis, which some fear could tip the country into civil war.
In the eastern town of Slaviansk, a tense flashpoint town near where the two bodies were found, the streets were calm on Wednesday, with locals walking about as usual.
A handful of rebels wearing camouflage gear and ski masks but with no apparent weapons stood outside the barricaded town hall they are occupying.
In front of the building were displayed three photos of militants who were killed in a weekend attack on a roadblock that the separatists have blamed on pro-Kiev ultra-nationalists.
Pro-Moscow insurgents in Slaviansk are holding two journalists, an American working for the company Vice News, Simon Ostrovsky, and a Ukrainian working for a pro-Kiev outlet, Irma Krat.
Slaviansk's local rebel leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told reporters that the American "is not being detained, was not abducted, has not been arrested", and said that he was "working" in one of the rebel-occupied buildings.
"There's nothing wrong with Ostrovsky. He is with us, he is feeling well and in a clean place," Ponomaryov said. "He is not a hostage but our guest."
Gunmen detained Ostrovsky Monday night along with other reporters who have since been released.
In an overnight call to Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry "expressed deep concern over the lack of positive Russian steps to de-escalate, cited mounting evidence that separatists continue to increase the number of buildings under occupation, and take journalists and other civilians captive", a senior State Department official said.
Kerry also warned that a lack of Russian progress on the Geneva deal struck last week would lead to more sanctions on Moscow.
Washington believes Russian troops are behind the rebellion in the east and the crisis has created a precarious Cold War-style standoff between the Moscow and the West.
Russia has deployed tens of thousands of troops to Ukraine's eastern border, while 150 US troops will arrive in Poland on Wednesday and another 450 are due in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the coming days.
The move sends a "message to Moscow" that "we take our obligations very, very seriously on the continent of Europe," US Rear Admiral John Kirby told a news conference in Washington.
The French and German foreign ministers on Wednesday were making a joint visit to Moldova and Georgia, former Soviet republics that also have breakaway regions with largely Russian-speaking populations.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier are due in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, on the first leg of a trip aimed at reinvigorating foreign policy ties between Berlin and Paris.
Steinmeier said the two countries “take very seriously the deep anxiety” with which their eastern partners are viewing the events in Ukraine.
The EU is pushing ahead with association agreements with Moldova and Georgia.
It was former president Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to backtrack on a similar association agreement for Ukraine in favour of closer ties with Russia that prompted the months of protest that eventually led to his ouster.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-04-23