Ukrainian officials on Friday said that the country’s special forces had launched the second phase of their military operation in the east of the country, mounting a full blockade of the rebel-held city of Slaviansk.
"Twenty minutes ago ... Ukrainian special forces units began the second stage, which consists of our taking the decision to blockade the city of Slaviansk completely and give no opportunity to bring in reinforcements," Serhiy Pashynsky, chief-of-staff to acting president Oleksander Turchinov, told Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
In a separate incident, Ukrainian officials said a military helicopter had exploded at a base in the nearby town of Kramatorsk after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
The Mi-8 helicopter was struck as it was on the tarmac of the base's landing zone. Its pilot managed to escape but was wounded, defence ministry officials said.
Ukraine’s Interior minister Arsen Avakov insisted every care was being taken to avoid non-combatant casualties, after Moscow warned it may act if Kiev used the army against civilians.
Earlier on Friday, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk accused Russia of wanting to start "World War Three" by occupying Ukraine both “militarily and politically”, after Moscow on Thursday ordered fresh military drills to be held on the shared border with Ukraine. The order came on the back of Kiev’s armed assault on Thursday on several checkpoints in Slaviansk in a bid to try and flush out occupying pro-Kremlin rebels.
“Attempts at military conflict in Ukraine will lead to a military conflict in Europe,” Yatseniuk told the interim cabinet in remarks broadcast live. “The world has not yet forgotten World War Two, but Russia already wants to start World War Three”, Yatseniuk said.
Ukraine will regard any incursion by Russian forces across the border as an invasion and the attackers will be killed, an aide to Turchinov said on Friday.
"We will consider any crossing of the Ukrainian border by Russian troops into the territory of Donetsk or any other region as a military invasion and we will destroy the attackers," Turchinov's chief-of-staff Serhiy Pashynsky was quoted as saying by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
Reacting to Russia’s escalated show of force, Angela Merkel’s office said the German chancellor phoned Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Friday, voicing her "great concern" over “the tense situation in eastern Ukraine and said she expects Russia's government to express its commitment to the Geneva agreement and to cooperate in its implementation”.
"Russia should publicly declare that it fully supports the Geneva declaration and it should publicly call on the armed pro-Russian groups in Ukraine to refrain from violence and lay down their arms," Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said.
So far, Seibert said, Russia's position since the Geneva deal had been "absolutely disappointing" and "we can see no progress whatsoever".
Under the agreement, illegal armed groups in Ukraine, including separatists in the largely Russian-speaking east, are supposed to disarm and disband.
The comments echoed an earlier sharp rebuke by US Secretary of State John Kerry who warned Moscow against making an “expensive mistake” in Ukraine and came as US President Barack Obama was to speak to European leaders, including Merkel, in a conference call to try to nudge them towards a new round of sanctions against Russia.
American officials have grown increasingly impatient with what they describe as Russia’s failure to live up to its commitments in an April 17 agreement reached in Geneva to try to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis.
Seibert, speaking at a Berlin press conference, said "sanctions are already in place" against Russia and that "you have to face the facts – in case nothing changes, it is important to be prepared for more" sanctions.
Moscow confirmed the phone call but threw the blame for the crisis at the Ukrainian government, which it accused of "unwillingness to implement the Geneva agreements".
"Vladimir Putin sharply condemned attempts by the Kiev regime to use armed forces against peaceful civilians in the southeast of the country," the Kremlin said in a statement.
While Obama has ruled out sending US or NATO forces into Ukraine, Washington has begun deploying 600 US troops to boost NATO's defences in nearby eastern European states.
France also said it was sending four fighter jets to join NATO air patrols over the Baltic states.
Russia accuses West of using Ukraine as ‘pawn’
In a televised address on Thursday, Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchinov vowed to push ahead with the offensive to put down the rebellion in the east.
"We will not back down from the terrorist threat," Turchinov said, telling Russia to stop interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in turn attacked the US and the EU of "trying to use Ukraine as a pawn in a geopolitical game".
UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned the crisis threatened to "spin out of control" and urged all sides to "refrain from violence".
In Slaviansk, several Ukrainian armoured vehicles backed by commandos on foot arrived after gunfire was heard on its outskirts.
The vehicles withdrew just a few hours later, leaving the insurgents, who had pulled back, to again assert full control over the town.
No reason was given for the retreat, but Ukrainian authorities had said they wanted to avoid casualties in the town where they said civilians were being used as "human shields".
While Ukraine's interior ministry said five militants were killed in the offensive, the rebels said two of their members had died in the assault.
The assault on Slaviansk followed two other clashes in east Ukraine on Thursday.
Thursday's violence was the worst to erupt since the deal done in Geneva between Kiev, Moscow and the West aimed at defusing tensions.
Moscow warns of Kiev’s ‘war machine’
Upon learning of the assault in Slaviansk, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned there would be "consequences".
His Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that Ukraine had mobilised 11,000 troops, 160 tanks and gangs of extremists "against peaceful civilians".
"If this war machine is not stopped today, then it will lead to a large number of dead and wounded," he said, as Moscow ordered tactical battalions among its estimated 40,000 troops massed on Ukraine's border to conduct a new "exercise" in response to the offensive.
The show of force came a day after Moscow said it would respond as it did in Georgia in 2008, if its interests in Ukraine were attacked.
Russia sent troops into South Ossetia in August 2008 after then president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili sought to reestablish control over the breakaway region.
As the crisis in Ukraine has escalated, Moscow has built up forces on the 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.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-04-25