Kiev tells pro-Russian groups to surrender or face assault
Moscow calls for urgent UN Security Council meeting after clashes in east of Ukraine
Pro-Russian protesters, one carrying an icon allegedly found in seized state security service office in Luhansk. The icon was given to nearest Orthodox church. Photograph: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov
Kiev has given pro-Russian protesters involved in deadly clashes with security forces until this morning to surrender or face a military assault, in a move Moscow has denounced as a “criminal order”, as it placed responsibility on the West to save Ukraine from civil war.
At least one member of Ukraine’s security services and one anti-government activist were killed yesterday as gunfights shook several towns in the country’s largely Russian- speaking east, where a week of unrest saw demonstrators seize official buildings in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, highlighting Kiev’s tenuous hold on areas near Russia.
Trouble spread and intensified over the weekend, as gangs of masked men armed with Kalashnikov rifles and grenade launchers seized administrative and police headquarters in several towns, and set up roadblocks in large parts of the heavily industrial Donetsk region.
Several security service officers were injured in firefights, and in the major city of Kharkiv organisers of a rally supporting Kiev’s pro-western government said dozens of people were hurt when they were attacked by protesters demanding more autonomy for eastern Ukraine or union with Russia.
The US and EU see Russian agents behind the unrest, and have imposed some sanctions on Russian politicians and businessmen. Kiev says some protesters in eastern cities are carrying weapons only available to Moscow’s forces, and also accuses Russia of massing tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine.
Moscow denies the allegations and insists the people occupying buildings and blocking roads are local volunteers. It said the same when masked, uniformed gunmen driving Russian armoured vehicles took control of Ukraine’s Crimea region before it was annexed by the Kremlin last month.
“The blood of Ukrainian heroes has been shed in a war which the Russian Federation is waging against Ukraine,” acting president Oleksandr Turchinov said on national television.
“The national security and defence council has decided to launch a large-scale anti-terrorist operation involving the armed forces of Ukraine. We will not allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in the eastern region of Ukraine.”
Mr Turchinov said people who did not fire at the security forces and who voluntarily left occupied buildings would not be prosecuted, and that the government would consider demands for “a fundamental widening of regional powers and broad reforms on local self- rule.”
“Do not be instruments in someone else’s cynical war against our very country; do not support those who want to destroy peace and calm and push your region into the depths of economic catastrophe, into the abyss of civil conflict,” he said.
Moscow blamed Ukraine’s government for the escalating violence and called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the crisis. Kiev says Russia has used such requests to play for time while tightening its grip on Crimea and now eastern regions.
“The situation in southeastern Ukraine is taking on an extremely dangerous character,” Russia’s foreign ministry said last night. “We decisively condemn attempts to use brute force against protesters and activists . . . We are particularly indignant about Turchinov’s criminal order to use the army to put down protests.”
Moscow says it must protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine from “fascist” supporters of the new government, which took power after protests in Kiev forced out Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovich, who has found refuge in Russia.
International rights groups have found no evidence of any threat to Ukraine’s tens of millions of Russian-speakers, and no rise in ethnically or linguistically motivated attacks against them has been registered.
Moscow refuses to recognise the new government and wants Ukraine to become a federation, which would dramatically weaken the pro-western Kiev administration and empower eastern regions that have strong links with Russia and where the Kremlin’s influence is considerable.
“The possibility of preventing civil war in Ukraine now depends on the West,” Moscow’s foreign ministry said yesterday.