Pro-Russia separatists ‘seize’ Ukrainian armoured vehicles
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Ukraine’s defence ministry on Wednesday said pro-Moscow militants had seized a column of Ukrainian armoured vehicles sent to the country’s troubled east in a bid to restore order, suggesting Russian agents were directly involved in the takeover.
“A column was blocked by a crowd of local people in Kramatorsk with members of a Russian diversionary-terrorist group among them,” the statement said. “As a result of the blocking, extremists seized the equipment.”
The statement said the troop carriers were now in nearby Slaviansk, guarded by “people in uniforms who have no relation to Ukraine’s armed forces.”
AP also reported that a column of six armoured vehicles flying Russian flags and controlled by masked men had entered Slaviansk on Wednesday.
But it was far from clear who these mostly masked men were. One of the men on the vehicles said they were Ukrainian soldiers who had defected to the pro-Russian side, but an AP journalist overheard another soldier suggesting that they were forced to hand over the vehicles.
“How was I supposed to behave if I had guns pointed at me?” the soldier, who did not identify himself, asked a resident.
The incidents come on the eve of key talks in Geneva between top Russian and Western diplomats to try to resolve the mounting crisis in Ukraine and underscores the failure by central government to push armed rebels out of captured buildings in at least 10 eastern towns without bloodshed.
Putin warns of ‘civil war’
Earlier on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the escalation of the conflict had put Ukraine "on the verge of civil war".
"The Russian president remarked that the sharp escalation of the conflict has placed the country, in effect, on the verge of civil war," the Kremlin said in a statement after telephone talks between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But both Putin and Merkel "emphasised the importance" of planned four-way talks beginning Thursday between top diplomats from Russia, the European Union, the United States and Ukraine.
The Kremlin statement said it was an "anti-constitutional" act "to use force against peaceful protest actions".
Putin told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that Moscow "expects clear condemnation from the United Nations and the international community of the anti-constitutional actions" by Ukraine.
Ban expressed his alarm over the "highly volatile situation" and told the Russian leader that everyone involved needed to "work to de-escalate the situation", his office said.
The White House has described Ukraine's military operation as a "measured" response to a lawless insurgency in the east that had put the government in an "untenable" situation.
The crisis has raised fears that Russia might turn off gas supplies to Ukraine, disrupting flows to the European Union.
Russian exporter Gazprom promised it would remain a reliable supplier to the EU, but German energy company RWE began deliveries to Ukraine on Tuesday, reversing the usual east-west flow in one central European pipeline.
'Exaggerated stories of harassment'
Russia accuses Kiev of having provoked the crisis in eastern Ukraine by infringing the rights of the Russian-speaking minority and has vowed to protect them. It also denounces the presence of far-right nationalists among the onetime opposition forces that have seized power in Kiev.
However, a United Nations report on Tuesday cast doubt on whether Russian-speakers were seriously under threat, including those in Crimea who voted to become a part of Russia in a referendum last month after Russian forces had already seized control of the Black Sea peninsula.
“Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread,” said the report by the UN human rights office.
The report cited “misinformed reports” and “greatly exaggerated stories of harassment of ethnic Russians by Ukrainian nationalist extremists”.
Both Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have denied accusations from Ukraine and the West that Moscow was stirring up separatists in the east and southeast as a possible prelude to seizing more territory.
“Ukraine is spreading lies that Russia is behind the actions in the southeast,” Lavrov said on a visit to China.
Russia has demanded that Ukraine grant more autonomy to its Russian-speaking areas, where most of the country’s heavy industry lies, while the separatists have demanded Crimean-style referendums in their regions.
Ukraine’s government opposes anything that might lead to the country’s breakup. But in an attempt to undercut the rebels’ demands, Turchinov has held out the prospect of a nationwide referendum on the future shape of the Ukrainian state.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)
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