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Ukraine forces kill up to five rebels, Russia nears border



(Reuters) - Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels on Thursday as they closed in on the separatists' military stronghold in the east, and Russia launched army drills near the border in response, raising fears its troops would invade.

The Ukrainian offensive amounts to the first time Kiev's troops have used lethal force to recapture territory from the fighters, who have seized swathes of eastern Ukraine since April 6 and proclaimed an independent "People's Republic of Donetsk".

Ukraine's acting president accused Moscow of supporting "terrorism at the state level" against his country for backing the rebels, who the government blames for kidnapping and torturing a politician found dead on Saturday.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said its forces backed by the army had removed three checkpoints manned by armed groups in the separatist-controlled city of Slaviansk.

"During the armed clash up to five terrorists were eliminated," it said in a statement, adding that one person had been wounded on the side of the government forces.

A rebel spokeswoman in Slaviansk said two fighters had died in a clash in the same area, northeast of the city center. Slaviansk's separatist self-proclaimed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, quoted on a local news site, said one man was shot dead and another badly wounded on the northeastern outskirts of the city. He said the dead had been unarmed.

Ukraine Launches Operation Against Insurgents

The Kremlin, which says it has the right to invade its neighbor to protect Russian speakers, has built up forces on Ukraine's border - estimated by NATO at up to 40,000 troops.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Moscow had launched military drills near the border in response to "Ukraine's military machine" and NATO exercises in eastern Europe. Kiev demanded an explanation within 48 hours of action on the border.

Russia already seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last month after President Vladimir Putin overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy by announcing the right to use military force in neighboring countries.

An invasion of mainland Ukraine's industrial heartland would be a far more serious action. It had seemed beyond contemplation only weeks ago but now looks like a real threat, although the full extent of Putin's territorial ambitions remains a mystery.

In St Petersburg, Putin said that if the authorities in Kiev had used the army in eastern Ukraine, it would be a very serious crime against their own people.

"It is just a punitive operation and it will of course incur consequences for the people making these decisions, including (an effect) on our interstate relations," Putin said in a televised meeting with regional media.

Russia Begins Military Exercises Near Ukraine and More

Washington criticized the Russian drills on the frontier. It was "exactly the opposite of what we have been calling on the Russians to do, which is to de-escalate the situation," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said.

Russia's Foreign Ministry responded that it was up to Washington to halt the Ukrainian military action, and "force the Kiev authorities, who are wards of the United States, to restrain themselves and not use force."

Reuters journalists saw a Ukrainian detachment with five armored personnel carriers take over a checkpoint on a road north of Slaviansk in the late morning after it was abandoned by separatists who set tires alight to cover their retreat.

However, two hours later the troops pulled back and it was unclear if Kiev would risk storming Slaviansk, a city of 130,000 that has become the military stronghold of a movement seeking annexation by Moscow of Ukraine's industrialized east.

"FINISH WHAT WE HAVE STARTED"

At another checkpoint set up by the Ukrainian military, a soldier said they were there to instill law and order.

"Those separatists, they violated the constitution, they are torturing the country, they violated laws, they do not recognize the authority of police, so the army had to move in and we will finish what we have started so help me God," he said.

Under an accord signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and European Union in Geneva last week, illegal armed groups are supposed to disarm and go home, including the rebels occupying about a dozen buildings in the largely Russian-speaking east.

However, the rebels have shown no sign of retreating. U.S. President Barack Obama blamed Russia for failing to carry out the Geneva deal and said he was ready to impose new sanctions.

Putin said sanctions were "dishonorable" and destroyed the global economy but that so far the damage had not been critical.

Moscow also flexed its economic muscles, with the government suggesting foreign firms which pull out of the country may not be able to get back in. A source at Gazprom said the Russian exporter had slapped an additional $11.4 billion bill on Kiev. Ukraine is negotiating to reverse east-west pipelines so that it can receive gas from Europe if Moscow cuts it off.

Washington accuses Moscow of sending agents to coordinate the unrest in the east, as it did before seizing Crimea last month. Russia denies it is behind the uprising and says the separatists are responding spontaneously to hostility from Kiev. Russia made similar denials over Crimea until Putin acknowledged last week his troops had indeed acted alongside local militia.

"At the state level, Russia is supporting terrorism in our country," Ukraine's acting President Oleksander Turchinov said in an address to the nation on Thursday. "Armed criminals have taken over buildings, are taking citizens, Ukrainian and foreign journalists, hostage and murdering Ukrainian patriots."

Turchinov called for the eastern offensive this week after the apparent torture and murder of a pro-Kiev town councilor whose body was found on Saturday near Slaviansk.

Volodymyr Rybak had disappeared after being filmed trying to take down a separatist flag while trying to enter the rebel-held town hall where he worked in Horlivka, a town near Slaviansk.

"He was bruised and punctured from head to toe...it's clear they tortured him," said Aleksander Yaroshenko, a family friend who accompanied Rybak's widow when she identified his body at the morgue. "The police have lots of details, they have CCTV footage, they should know who did this," he told Reuters.

Rebels in Slaviansk released U.S. citizen Simon Ostrovsky, one of three journalists they are believed to be holding.

Moscow called for Kiev to release "political prisoners", including a pro-Russian activist named Pavel Gubarev.

U.S. TROOPS ARRIVE IN POLAND

So far, the United States and EU have taken only mild action against Moscow, imposing visa bans and asset freezes on a few Russians, measures Moscow has scoffed at as meaningless. Washington and Brussels both say they are drafting more serious sanctions and will impose them if the Geneva deal collapses.

Even without serious sanctions, Russia's confrontation with the West has hurt its economy as fearful investors send their money abroad. Mutual funds specializing in Russia and Eastern Europe were the 30 worst performers out of 3,489 equity funds for sale in Britain in the three months ending in March.

In NATO member Poland, the first group of a contingent of around 600 U.S. soldiers arrived on Wednesday, part of an effort by Washington to reassure eastern European allies who are worried by the Russian build-up near Ukraine's borders.

However, NATO and the United States have made clear they will not use military force to protect Ukraine itself.

Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, said aircraft would fly increased patrols near the Ukrainian frontier as part of the new exercises. Two local residents in the area told Reuters they had seen attack helicopters flying in formation.

Kiev said the city hall in another eastern town, Mariupol, which had been seized, was back under central control. A separatist crowd later surrounded the building, patrolled by police but otherwise apparently empty.

Kiev also reported a shootout overnight in another part of the east where a Ukrainian soldier was wounded.

Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, slid into unrest late last year when Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich rejected a pact to build closer ties with Europe. Protesters took over central Kiev and he fled in February. Days later, Russian troops seized control of Crimea.

The Ukrainian defence ministry confirmed its involvement in the operation around Slaviansk on Thursday, saying the troops involved were airborne units with experience of such tasks from international peacekeeping missions.

"The morale of our forces will allow them to completely fulfill their task of defending Ukraine," it said.

Unarmed mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are in eastern Ukraine trying to persuade pro-Russian gunmen to go home, in line with the Geneva accord.

Reuters reporters have not been able to establish that any Russian troops or special forces members are on the ground, though Kiev and Western powers say they have growing evidence that Moscow has a presence. Masked gunmen in the east, widely referred to as "green men", wear uniforms without insignia.

Kiev has been cautious in taking action for fear of triggering a Russian invasion. Last week it ordered an "anti-terrorist operation", but this quickly fizzled out when an armored column of paratroopers surrendered weapons to a separatist crowd.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov and Gleb Garanich near Slaviansk; Alissa de Carbonnel in Donetsk; Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Richard Balmforth and Alastair Macdonald in Kiev, Denis Dyomkin in Birobidzhan, Russia, Mark Felsenthal in Tokyo, Alessandra Prentice and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by Christian Lowe, David Stamp, Philippa Fletcher and Peter Graff)

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
spearmintrhin007 April 24 2014 at 7:26 PM

This could be a blood bath down the road.
Are we prepared to committ?
If not willing to take the heat, stay the hell out of the Kitchen.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
1 reply
rgrunner spearmintrhin007 April 24 2014 at 8:09 PM

Sooner or later there will be heat. Much like world of 1930's, it's a matter of time. The question is will we stop it sooner or later. Sooner will be cheaper in money and lives....later..well we lived that on in 1940's.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
jaikens3 April 24 2014 at 7:04 PM

For those pro-Russians who call American hypocrites - "And why behold you the speck that is in your brother's eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye?" Matthew 7:3

Give the six Muslim majority republics the right to vote to stay with the Russian Federation are leave.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
1 reply
johnmbays1 jaikens3 April 24 2014 at 7:36 PM

That would be "Splinter" and "Beam" - not "Speck" - and Or - not "Are".

Flag Reply 0 rate up
Rick April 25 2014 at 6:21 AM

Wanta bet if we went to a area here in the us where they speak Russian and messed with them Putin would come to there aid?I didn't think so , his balls arnt THAT big.So if he doesn't help his countrymen that means he is nothing more than A person that picks on the weak.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
splintercottage April 24 2014 at 7:00 PM

Sadly citizens of countries understand very little about the economies in which they are to abide. Its not as if one can pick up and go elsewhere. Half your retirement is in a BUBBLE ... hardly an accurate economic term for fraudulent bonds ... and the banks can adjust your interest up to cover the money they stole. It all works so much better if done within the misery of hysteria. The mystery of ethnic patrotism.

The Russain citizens poll positively on Putins agressions ... assuming the same people are counting the polls that count the elections in Russia, Florida, and Ohio. Its fair to assume the costs billed by his frieinds supplying the army will be deducted from their BUBBLE ... retirements for Russian Citizens.

Its all great fun parading around making definitive speaches playing frat games. Smashing the peace. What we need is a debate between Dick Putin and Vladimer Chenny. They can talk about the profits from wars in Afganistan and how they would have won if only there were a couple of dozen trillion left to divide among their "friends".

I certainly understand Putins position ... the oppostion is often allowed to occupy buildings in his country. Military walks the streets w/o badges. HOw many troops in ***** riot. Was it 3?

Flag Reply +1 rate up
frank1946 April 25 2014 at 4:35 AM

War is not productive work.

Russia an excellent example.

Oil, Gas and Murder.

Same Old Story !

Flag Reply +1 rate up
Kat4Hat April 24 2014 at 10:45 PM

Well, if you feel that having NATO nuks (that what Kiev plans) right in your backyard is a comfortable neighbor, then you are correct-No threat to Russians. I do not think so. Millions of those who dealt with NATO are dead.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
1 reply
Stephen Kat4Hat April 24 2014 at 11:17 PM

unfortunately you were not among them

Flag Reply 0 rate up
trantiques April 25 2014 at 10:37 AM

If the Russian speaking people in the Ukraine want to be Russian and under Russian control, Putin needs to open up the flood gates and allow anyone who wants to move to Russia to do so peacefully. He can then aid them with housing and jobs and the rest of the Ukraine would be allowed to live in peace.

Flag Reply +5 rate up
bobkdesign April 25 2014 at 8:26 AM

History repeats itself.

This is not the first time that Russia created a "Peoples Republic" in the Ukraine, threatened to attack, and then following up with invasion and war.

The first time was under Lenin and Trotsky in 1917, form Wikipedia:

Red Guards led by Antonov-Ovsiyenko invaded Kharkiv completely taking over the city on 22 December 1917 and starting the Ukrainian–Soviet War. ... The same day on 22 December 1917 there started the first stage of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signing of which stretched for over two months.

After two days since Kharkiv was occupied by the Russian Red Guards, finally the other All-Ukrainian congress* of Soviets took place. The session has opened in the building of Noble Assembly. On 25 December 1917, the congress declared creation of the Ukrainian People's Republic of Soviets...

*Note: All-Ukrainian congress is a misnomer, just like Pro-Ukrainian self defense unit is ... both are being directed by the leadership and military in Moscow.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
1 reply
gary bobkdesign April 25 2014 at 9:37 AM

The Russians could learn alot from the Cubans, If you don't like the country then leave.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
tomra1212 April 24 2014 at 8:21 PM

You will never know what happened rememberBENGHAZI THE PRESS WILL NEVER TELL YOU


Read first by NSA

Flag Reply +4 rate up
patriot1too April 25 2014 at 8:05 AM

America should kick putins communist madman dictators butt all the way back to moscow. We should never alow this communist cancer to spread anywhere. God bless America.

Flag Reply +9 rate up
1 reply
ddanbryant patriot1too April 25 2014 at 8:24 AM

I agree!!!! We should just take him out of the picture for good.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
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