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Russia orders military drills as Ukraine moves on separatists

© AFP

Video by Catherine VIETTE

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-04-25

Russia announced on Thursday that it had ordered military exercises along its border with Ukraine following moves by Ukrainian government forces against pro-Russian separatists occupying public buildings in the country’s east.

Under the terms of an international accord signed in Geneva last week, illegal armed groups in Ukraine, including separatists in the largely Russian-speaking east, are supposed to disarm and disband.

But they have shown no signs of doing so, and on Thursday Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said its forces – backed by the army – had removed three checkpoints manned by armed groups in the separatist-controlled city of Slaviansk, killing at least five people.

In response to the situation in eastern Ukraine and NATO exercises in Poland, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced military drills near the border with Ukraine.

“We have to react to these developments somehow,” he said in televised comments.

Russia has built up forces on Ukraine’s border - estimated by NATO officials at up to 40,000 troops - and maintains it has the right to protect Russian-speakers if they come under threat. This is the reason it gave for annexing the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last month.

In St Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if the authorities in Ukraine had used the army in the country’s east, it would constitute a serious crime against its own people.

“It is just a punitive operation and it will, of course, incur consequences for the people making these decisions, including (an effect) on our interstate relations,” Putin said in a televised meeting with regional media.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama said earlier he was prepared to introduce new sanctions against Russia if it did not act quickly to end the armed stand-off.

“We have prepared for the possibility of applying additional sanctions,” he told a news conference on a visit to Japan. “There’s always the possibility that Russia, tomorrow or the next day, reverses its course and takes a different approach.”

The US and EU have imposed visa bans and asset freezes on targeted Russian nationals following the takeover of Crimea.

Putin said sanctions were “dishonourable” and posed a threat to the global economy but that, so far, the damage had not been critical.

Unrest in eastern Ukraine

Acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov called for the offensive against pro-Russia separatists in the country’s east on Tuesday after the apparent torture and murder of a member of his own party from Slaviansk.

A local opposition activist called on the police to clear up the death of Volodymyr Rybak, a member of the Batkivshchyna party who had remained loyal to Kiev.

“He was bruised and punctured from head to toe ... it’s clear they tortured him,” said Aleksander Yaroshenko, a family friend who accompanied Rybak’s widow when she identified his body at the morgue. “The police have lots of details, they have CCTV footage, they should know who did this.”

The government said the city hall in another eastern town, Mariupol, which had been seized by separatists, was now back under central control. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the mayor was back in his office.

Ukraine also reported a shootout overnight in another part of the east, while pro-Russian separatists in Slaviansk were holding three journalists, including US citizen Simon Ostrovsky. Ostrovsky was later reported to have been released.

Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, slid into unrest late last year when former president Viktor Yanukovich turned his back on a trade deal with Europe in favour of closer ties with Russia. Following massive demonstrations against his government, he fled the country in February.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-04-24

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