Ukraine: 5 die as government forces clash with pro-Russians

Ukraine: 5 die as government forces clash with pro-Russians
Phil Black/CNN
Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 7:32am

Ukrainian forces killed five militants during operations to take down pro-Russians' roadblocks in Slavyansk on Thursday, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said, in what appeared to be a significant escalation of violence in the country.

At the same time, Russia and the West continued their war of words over the handling of the crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if the Kiev government "has started to use the army against the population inside the country, it, beyond any doubt, is a very serious crime."

This would "have consequences" for those making the decisions and for relations between the two governments, Putin said at a media forum Thursday, according to Russian state TV channel Russia 24.

Conflicting accounts have emerged about the number of casualties in eastern Ukraine.

The government in Kiev confirmed operations to destroy three checkpoints around the city and said its forces killed five pro-Russian militants. A police officer was also injured, the Interior Ministry said.

But Stella Horosheva, a spokeswoman for the self-appointed pro-Russian mayor of Slavyansk, said an attack at an impromptu roadway checkpoint took the life of a pro-Russian militiaman and wounded another.

The Interior Ministry said leaflets had been distributed "which called on people to keep the peace, not leave their residences, to keep children inside, to not react to provocation and to not obey illegal orders issued by the self-proclaimed illegal authorities."

The government accused Slavyansk's self-appointed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, of threatening to kill anyone possessing the leaflet.

Reports of threats against Slavyansk residents have not been independently confirmed by CNN.

In the Donetsk region, where pro-Russian protesters have tried to declare independence from Ukraine, gunmen opened fire on a Ukrainian military unit overnight.

One Ukrainian soldier was injured in the assault in the town of Artemivsk, Ukraine's Defense Ministry said Thursday.

But security forces fought off the attack and retained control of the facility, the ministry said.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on his Facebook page accused the group of roughly 70 attackers of trying to take weapons from the unit.

Crossed claims in Mariupol

Both the government and pro-Russian protesters claimed victory in the eastern city of Mariupol on Thursday.

Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov opened a meeting of parliament with the announcement that the city hall, which pro-Russian protesters had occupied, had been freed.

Avakov said on his Facebook page that there were no casualties in the operation and that the Interior Ministry was preparing the premises for employees to return to work.

But pro-Russian protester Irina Voropayeva, who is in Mariupol, contradicted them both.

An assault on the city hall failed to dislodge the protesters, she said. Some of the occupiers were injured while they fought off the attackers, whom she said were extreme-right Ukrainian toughs.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry later revised its version of events in a post to its website.

A group of 30 people armed with baseball bats entered city hall early Thursday and demanded the occupiers leave, it said. As the two groups clashed, police tried to separate them. Five people were injured.

Diplomatic deterioration

A week ago, the United States, Russia, the European Union and Ukraine sat down in Geneva, Switzerland, to hammer out an agreement calling for all sides to cease violence.

It has seemingly gone ignored, as the rift between the parties involved grows, and Russia and the West accuse each other of foiling the agreement by meddling in Ukraine's affairs.

On Thursday, U.S. and Russian leaders exchanged new barbs.

The interim government in Kiev must act to disarm right-wing ultranationalists responsible for violence in Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday.

"We don't have any doubts that the first step must be done by the Kiev authorities," said Lavrov. He accused the West of treating leaders in Kiev like "angels" who did nothing wrong while blaming Russia for the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Lavrov accused the European Union and the United States of supporting an unconstitutional coup in Ukraine.

He also accused the West of abandoning a spirit of partnership that had developed with Moscow, Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported.

Lavrov said that the decline started long before the Ukraine crisis, and was apparent when the West tried to "tarnish the Olympic Games in Sochi."

Putin, speaking on Russia 24, said the events unfolding in eastern Ukraine demonstrate that Moscow's decision to support the Crimean people, who voted to join Russia last month in a referendum condemned by the West, was right.

"Otherwise they would have witnessed the same events as eastern Ukraine and surely even worse," he said. "So, this is another proof that we have acted correctly and on time."

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reproached Putin over Ukraine while speaking at the University of Connecticut on Wednesday.

She accused him of "trying to turn the clock back to the Soviet Union days."

"I think Russia will pay a big price for this," she said.

Bellicose allegations

The West has alleged that Moscow sent members of its armed forces into the country, providing other support for pro-Russian militants or generally contributing to an atmosphere of distrust and instability.

Some in the West fear that Russia will try to repeat its annexation of Crimea elsewhere in Ukraine and perhaps in other countries in which ethnic Russians live or where Russia or the former Soviet Union historically has had significant influence.

Clinton called for keeping Ukraine's territory intact and allowing it to have a relationship with the West.

Lavrov threw the allegation back at the United States this week.

"(Americans) have, I think, overwhelming influence," he said. "They act in a much more open way, without any scruples, compared to the Europeans. ... You cannot avoid the impression that they are running the show very much, very much."

As proof, Lavrov pointed to the timing of the Ukrainian government's relaunch of its security operation just after a two-day visit from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

He claimed Turchynov has "ordered the army to shoot at ... people if they are engaged in peaceful protests," yet hasn't disarmed extremists and what he called "the right sector."

On the other hand, Pro-Russian protesters have not left government buildings they have seized or disarmed, as was mandated by the Geneva agreement.

Russian troops

Meanwhile, NATO estimates that Russia has amassed 40,000 troops near its border with Ukraine, which has fueled speculation the conflict could only get bigger and more violent, with Russia possibly taking over some, if not all, of Ukraine and possibly neighboring nations.

Lavrov didn't say on Wednesday that any military intervention was imminent, but he didn't rule it out, either.

"Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation," he said.

On Wednesday, a company-size contingent of U.S. Army paratroopers arrived in Poland, for training exercises at Warsaw's request.

The contingent is part of "a persistent rotational presence," said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.

Obama on Thursday said Russia has not abided by "the spirit or the letter" of the Geneva agreement.

Speaking during a trip to Japan, he reiterated that the United States would continue to pursue diplomacy with Russia -- and increase sanctions.

"There is not going to be a military solution in Ukraine," he said.

The United States and its allies have accused Russia of fomenting unrest in Ukraine since massive demonstrations helped push out pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who came under fire for shifting Ukraine away from the European Union and closer to Moscow.

CNN's Victoria Butenko reported from Kiev; CNN's Ben Brumfield wrote and reported from Atlanta and Laura Smith-Spark from London. CNN's Alla Eshchenko reported from near Slavyansk and Gul Tuysuz from Kiev. CNN's Arkady Irshenko, Boriana Milanova and Gabe LaMonica contributed to this report. 

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