No sign of crackdown as Ukraine deadline passes

No sign of crackdown as Ukraine deadline passes
Ukrainian Government
Monday, April 14, 2014 - 3:48am

The majority of Ukrainians would back keeping Ukraine in one piece if a referendum is held along with elections set for next month, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said on Monday, hours after a deadline passed for pro-Russian protesters to disarm and end their occupation of state buildings.

As Kiev's embattled new leaders faced the latest in a string of protests in the Russian-speaking east, Turchynov raised the possibility of holding a national referendum alongside presidential elections scheduled for May 25.

"We do not mind having a referendum," Turchynov told members of parliament.

"Moreover, if there is (a) parliamentary decision to hold one together with the presidential elections, I am sure most people will express support of independent and unitary Ukraine."

Turchynov spoke hours after a Ukrainian government 2 a.m. ET deadline passed for pro-Russian protesters to lay down their arms and leave occupied buildings. There was with no sign that the deadline was heeded in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Slaviansk.

Speaking on television late Sunday, Turchynov had told protesters they would face a "full-scale anti-terrorist operation" by Ukrainian armed forces otherwise.

But the deadline passed with no movement at the regional government building in Donetsk, which has been occupied for more than a week, and where barricades have been strengthened in the last few days.

In Slaviansk, pro-Russian protesters milled around with makeshift shields outside the occupied police station.

Similar deadlines in the past passed with no consequence.

Turchynov had issued a promise of amnesty for the activists -- made up of protesters as well as armed militants who in recent days have stormed public buildings and planted Russian flags on them -- in eastern Ukraine but warned that anyone who continues to support the takeover of government buildings would be held responsible for their actions.

"We'll not allow any repetition of the Crimean scenario in the east of Ukraine. I have signed a decree that would allow those who did not shoot at our officers to lay down their arms and leave the occupied buildings by Monday morning without fear of being prosecuted," he said.

Kiev blames Moscow

As of Sunday night, security and government buildings in at least nine towns and cities across eastern Ukraine, mainly in Donetsk region, were held by protestors.

Turchynov said Russia was responsible for the bloodshed; at least one Ukrainian soldier was killed in clashes between pro-Ukrainian crowds and pro-Russian protesters, a high-level source in Ukraine's Security Services told CNN.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said any use of force against pro-Russian demonstrators in Ukraine is counter to creating a lasting solution to the crisis.

A stable Ukraine is in Moscow's best interest, Lavrov said, also denying reports that Russian forces are active in the east. He refused to speculate what events or actions would spur a military intervention by Russia into Ukraine.

Lavrov said he would hold off judgment on Turchynov's proposed referendum until Moscow sees the outline of the questions to be asked. He added that pro-Russian activists in the east must be given an active role in shaping a new constitution.

Ukrainian officials have placed blame for unrest in the eastern section of their country squarely on their neighbor. The new Ukrainian government said the security operations were launched against terrorists who are attempting to "destroy our country."

Giving no further details, it also said it had "concrete evidence of Russian special service involvement" in the pro-Russian protests and storming of buildings and would present it at an international meeting on the Ukraine crisis on Thursday.

Ukrainian security forces launched an operation Sunday to clear pro-Russian separatists from a police headquarters in the eastern city of Slaviansk, officials said.

However, a CNN crew in the city saw no sign of a large presence of Ukrainian security forces -- with the exception of a single police car and a helicopter flying above -- nor any confrontation with the occupiers.

Gunmen dressed in camouflage had stormed and seized the police building a day earlier in Slaviansk, a town about 100 miles from the Russian border, and set up barricades around it.

Spiraling anger

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the attacks in Slaviansk were "professional" and "coordinated" -- similar to Russia's incursion into the Crimean Peninsula last month.

The United States is prepared to step up sanctions against Russia if the recent actions in Ukraine continue, she said. Speaking on ABC's "This Week", she said the latest events in Ukraine bore "the telltale signs of Moscow's involvement."

"I think we've seen that the sanctions can bite. And if actions like the kind that we've seen over the last few days continue, you're going to see a ramping up of those sanctions," she said.

The unrest is the latest show of spiraling anger in eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population. The region was the support base for pro-Moscow former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February after months of protests in Kiev.

Distrust among the population in the region grew as political power in the national government shifted rapidly in a pro-Western direction. A short time later, pro-Russian elements occupied the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Russia quickly annexed. Since then, pro-Russian protesters have taken to the streets in eastern Ukrainian regions and in some cases stormed and occupied buildings.

Kiev's fragile new government and the West accuse Russia of destabilizing the region as a pretext to potentially send in troops to protect the local Russian-speaking population.

NATO says Russian armed forces are massing on Ukraine's eastern border, while Moscow says they are merely carrying out military exercises.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine's second most populous city, police outside City Hall offered no resistance when protesters took over the building Sunday afternoon, according to a witness. It is not clear why the police stepped aside for protesters.

Russian and local Ukrainian media reported that pro-Russian demonstrators had seized the city hall in Mariupol, in the southeast, with no violence. Some showed pictures of Russian flags in the city. The reports could not immediately be independently confirmed.

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton is to meet this week with foreign ministers from the United States, Russia and Ukraine in Switzerland to discuss efforts to de-escalate the situation. EU foreign ministers will meet in Luxembourg on Monday to discuss the crisis.

On Sunday night, the U.N. Security Council held an urgent, previously unscheduled meeting to discuss the worsening crisis where strong condemnations and accusations were traded.

CNN's Steve Almasy and Nick Paton Walsh and journalist Victoria Butenko in Kiev contributed to this report 

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