Ukraine on brink of civil war as crisis deepens

Diplomatic initiative flounders as Russia insists rebels should be included

A funeral steward holds a picture of 17-year-old Vadim Papura during a religious service  in Odessa yesterday. Photograph: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

A funeral steward holds a picture of 17-year-old Vadim Papura during a religious service in Odessa yesterday. Photograph: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda


A day after intense fighting in eastern Ukraine, the region remained on the brink of civil war as a diplomatic initiative to end the confrontation floundered, with Russia insisting the rebels holding much of the south and east of the country should be included in talks on equal terms with the Kiev government.

French president François Hollande warned that “chaos and the risk of civil war” were looming in Ukraine, while the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said: “We are not far from a military confrontation.”

The Ukrainian army’s attempts to regain control of the east of the country, termed an “anti-terrorist operation”, are partly meant to prevent a referendum on secession from going ahead on Sunday in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but have already led to casualties on both sides in Slavyansk, the most fortified rebel stronghold.

In Slavyansk yesterday, shocked locals picked their way through the mess outside their homes, discovering broken windows, pools of blood and bullet-riddled fences a day after fighting that caused casualties on both sides. “They just came and started shooting at us. There was no warning,” one Slavyansk resident said. “Look, everything is destroyed.”

Most residents appear to blame the Ukrainian army for the violence. “They [the rebels] are peaceful people, they never shot anyone and now these fascists come and try to kill us,” one woman said.

Four Ukrainian soldiers were killed during the confrontation. Rebels also reportedly shot down a helicopter, the third to have been felled in the past three days.

30 pro-Russia gunmen killed
Writing on his Facebook page, Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said 30 pro-Russia gunmen had been killed. “We estimate that the terrorists lost more than 30 people,” Mr Avakov wrote. The figure could not be verified. A spokesperson for Slavyansk’s self-appointed people’s mayor, the local rebel leader Vyacheslav Ponomarev, said the militia body count stood at 10, with another 17 seriously wounded.

One bystander was reported to have been shot and killed in the crossfire while smoking a cigarette on her balcony on Monday. The civilian death follows that of 21-year-old nurse Yulia Izotova, who died after being hit by a stray bullet during clashes three days ago.

Yesterday around midday a car reportedly tore through a militia checkpoint and opened fire in the centre of the city. Video footage showed one person being stretchered away from the scene. The militia briefly closed the area down before reopening it later in the afternoon, but the vehicle, riddled with bullet holes, was left ominously at the side of the road.

‘Life has stopped’
Slavyansk residents are now bracing for what seems to many an inevitable war on their doorsteps. “We are very anxious,” said 27-year-old Aleksander as he visited his local shop to stock up on provisions with his three-year-old daughter. Shops are selling out of food. People can’t work. Life has stopped.”

Cashpoints have run out of money, local transport has ground to a halt and most businesses have closed altogether.

Several residents said that following the recent clashes they were ready to join the pro-Russia rebels.

“If this goes on, then what choice does a man have other than to stand up, to defend his wife, his family, his city?” said 58-year-old Vladimir. “Our grandfathers fought the fascists from 1941 to 1945 and won. We will follow in their footsteps.”

One of the local militia commanders said hundreds of men were signing up to join their ranks. “We can’t even accept them all because we don’t have enough weapons, for now,” he said.

But as the Ukraine army edged forward into Slavyansk, the pro-Russia militia groups appeared to be making gains on another front. In nearby Donetsk, the regional administrative headquarters, gunmen are operating openly on the street, a distinct change from a week ago. Nearly all state buildings and some private businesses in the city have been seized.

With most of the state security buildings in the region captured by local militia there was no resistance from law enforcement officials. On Monday a group of armed men appeared to attempt to seize a local military training school but later withdrew after negotiations. A cache of arms might be stored inside. – (Guardian service)