Parts of a suspected Russian missile system have been found at Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash site in Ukraine, international investigators say.
Investigators in the Netherlands say the fragments, possibly from a Buk surface-to-air system, are “of particular interest” and could help show who was behind the crash.
However, they say they have not proved their “causal connection” with the crash.
MH17 crashed on land held by Russian-backed rebels in July 2014, killing all 298 on board.
It had 283 passengers on board, including 80 children, and 15 crew members.
About two-thirds of those who died were Dutch nationals, with dozens of Malaysians and Australians among the rest.
Ukraine and many Western countries have accused pro-Russian rebels of shooting down the plane, saying they could have used a Buk missile system supplied by Russia.
Russia and the rebels deny any responsibility and say the Ukrainian military was to blame.
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) said in a joint statement with the Dutch Safety Board that the parts had been “secured during a previous recovery mission in eastern Ukraine”.
“The parts are of particular interest to the criminal investigation as they can possibly provide more information about who was involved in the crash of MH17. For that reason the JIT further investigates the origin of these parts,” the statement said.
“At present the conclusion cannot be drawn that there is a causal connection between the discovered parts and the crash of flight MH17.”
The investigators would now enlist the help of weapons experts and forensic specialists to examine the parts, the statement added.
The JIT comprises representatives of the Netherlands, Ukraine, Belgium, Malaysia and Australia.
They are meeting in The Hague to discuss a draft report on the causes of the crash, the final version of which is expected to be published by the Dutch Safety Board in October.
The statement comes two weeks after Russia vetoed a draft resolution to set up an international tribunal into the disaster, triggering widespread outrage.
Moscow described the Malaysian initiative as “premature” and “counterproductive”.
Malaysia Airlines’ Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was brought down on July 17, 2014, in Donetsk region.
Just one day after a peace deal was reached in Minsk new shelling has been reported around the rebel-held east Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
There are no confirmed reports of casualties. Both cities are near the front line where the pro-Russian rebels face government forces.
The ceasefire agreed in Minsk, Belarus, is to begin in eastern Ukraine on February 15 at 00:00 local time.
The EU has warned Russia of additional sanctions if the deal is not respected.
On Friday morning, a military spokesman in Kiev said eight members of Ukraine’s military had been killed in fighting against separatists in the past 24 hours.
Meanwhile, rebels said seven civilians had been killed, reported AFP. Two people were also killed on Friday morning when rebels shelled a cafe in Shchastya, near Luhansk, said the head of the Kiev-controlled regional administration.
“So this is how a comprehensive ceasefire is prepared for,” said Hennadiy Moskal in a statement.
He was echoing wider doubts about the peace deal agreed following marathon negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.
Pro-Russian rebels have signed the agreement, which also includes weapon withdrawals and prisoner exchanges, but key issues remain to be settled.
A new round of EU asset freezes and travel bans against 19 Ukrainian separatists and Russians – in response to deadly fighting in the city of Mariupol in January – will come into effect on Monday regardless of the latest deal.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel says wider measures could be implemented if the ceasefire is not upheld.
She has called the deal “a glimmer of hope”, adding: “It is very important that words are followed by actions.”
Russia has reaffirmed it is playing no direct role in the conflict, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisting it is only a “guarantor”:
“It is not a party that has to take action in this matter. We simply cannot do that physically, because Russia is not a participant in this conflict,” he said.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says the rival military commanders will hold direct talks – including on the withdrawal of heavy armor to create a buffer zone.
He warned that implementation of the agreement, reached by leaders in the Belarusian capital Minsk, would be difficult.
Another sticking point is the disputed town of Debaltseve, a strategically key government-held town which rebels claim to have surrounded but which Ukraine refuses to surrender.
Further talks will also be held on self-rule in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk separatist regions.
The truce is to be monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – but with only 412 international monitors in Ukraine, including 226 in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, some analysts have expressed doubt that they are there in adequate numbers to do the job.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of supplying weapons and personnel to the rebels but Russia denies this.
President Petro Poroshenko has ordered more troops to key southern and eastern Ukraine cities in case of a new rebel offensive.
Petro Poroshenko said the units were to protect Mariupol, Berdyansk, Kharkiv and the north of Luhansk region.
He spoke after meeting security chiefs in the wake of disputed polls in rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Petro Poroshenko said he was still committed to the current peace process but has proposed cancelling a key plank of the plan.
The peace process was laid out in a September 5 ceasefire deal agreed in Minsk, Belarus.
President Petro Poroshenko has ordered more troops to key southern and eastern Ukraine cities in case of a new rebel offensive
Angered by the elections, Petro Poroshenko has proposed scrapping a law that gives special status to Donetsk and Luhansk.
Both regions staged swearing-in ceremonies for their pro-Russian leaders on Tuesday, following the elections there on November 2.
Alexander Zakharchenko was inaugurated president of the Donetsk People’s Republic while Igor Plotnitsky was sworn in as president of the Luhansk People’s Republic.
The polls were held against the background of a conflict that has killed more than 4,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April.
Ukraine accuses Russia of arming the rebels and sending Russian regular troops across the border – a claim denied by Moscow.
Both the government and rebel sides have repeatedly violated the ceasefire.
Ukraine and its Western allies have condemned the elections in the east.
At the meeting of his security chiefs, Petro Poroshenko said the Ukrainian reinforcements would be for the “construction of fortifications” against a “possible offensive in the direction of Mariupol, Berdyansk, Kharkiv and Luhansk north”.
He said Ukraine remained “a supporter of the peace plan” and would adhere to its terms, which were agreed in Minsk by delegations from Ukraine, Russia, rebels and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Rebels in eastern Ukraine are holding elections denounced by the West as “illegitimate”.
Presidential and parliamentary polls are being held in the two self-proclaimed people’s republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Ukraine, the US and EU say they will not recognise the elections but Russia has given its support to the polls.
At least seven Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since Friday amid intensified clashes in the region.
The Donetsk and Luhansk regions fell to separatists after months of fighting in eastern Ukraine that ended with the Minsk ceasefire deal in September.
Rebel leaders say that as independent states they are not required to observe Ukrainian law and therefore did not participate in Ukraine’s national elections last week.
They say three million ballots have been printed for the polls, which will provide for directly elected presidents and parliaments.
Presidential and parliamentary polls are being held in the two self-proclaimed people’s republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions
“These elections are important because they will give legitimacy to our power and give us more distance from Kiev,” Roman Lyagin, election commission chief of the Donetsk region, told the AFP news agency.
Western leaders and ministers in the capital Kiev say the territories must abide by the truce, which was agreed with Russia, and hold local elections under Ukrainian law in December.
“We deplore the intent of separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine to hold illegitimate so-called local <<elections>> on Sunday,” the White House said in a statement on October 31.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the Minsk deal provided for elections “in co-ordination with, not in line with” Ukrainian plans.
Alexander Zakharchenko, the acting head of government in Donetsk, is widely tipped to become the region’s president.
Meanwhile, Igor Plotnitsky is being touted by Russian media as the favourite to win in Luhansk.
The elections come amid continuing violence in eastern Ukraine.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s army said on November 1 that seven soldiers had been killed and 10 wounded during 24 hours of fighting across the breakaway regions.
At least 3,700 people have been killed in fighting since armed separatists took over government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk in April.
Russia has announced it will recognize the results of controversial separatist elections in eastern Ukraine, which the rebels plan to hold on November 2.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions “will be important to legitimize the authorities there”.
However, Ukraine and Western governments say the elections should not go ahead. They accuse Russia of arming the rebels.
Poland plans to reinforce its eastern military bases, closer to Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops have been battling the pro-Russian rebels in the east.
A shaky truce took effect on September 5, but there have been many violations and the situation remains very volatile.
In Kiev pro-Western parties are leading after Ukraine’s national parliamentary elections on Sunday.
Voting did not take place in rebel-held eastern districts, or in Crimea, which Russia annexed in March.
Russia has announced it will recognize the results of controversial separatist elections in eastern Ukraine, which the rebels plan to hold on November 2
Ukraine has urged Russia to put pressure on the separatists not to hold rival elections in the east.
Sergei Lavrov said “we expect the elections will go ahead as agreed, and we will of course recognize the results”.
A Ukrainian diplomat told the AFP news agency that Moscow’s support for the rebel vote would “undermine the peace process”.
The November vote is much earlier than was agreed by Ukrainian legislation granting the breakaway regions limited self-rule.
“We are reckoning that the vote will be free and that nobody from outside will try to wreck it, “ Sergei Lavrov said.
The armed separatists who took over government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk in April have declared “people’s republics” in both regions, loyal to Moscow instead of Kiev. The two regions are commonly called “Donbass”.
At least 3,700 people have been killed in the fighting and many more have fled to other parts of Ukraine or to Russia.
Meanwhile, Poland’s Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said “we want to strengthen our units in the east of Poland” in response to the Ukraine crisis.
“The first effects will be seen in 2017. There will be a whole series of initiatives connected to units in the east. There will also be investments in infrastructure,” Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.
Poland joined NATO in 1999, whereas Ukraine remains outside the alliance.
In 2008 Russia also backed pro-Russian separatists in Georgia and later recognized the breakaway regions as independent.
Under the truce deal the Ukrainian authorities pledged not to prosecute the leaders of the eastern rebellion – yet many Ukrainian politicians want prosecutions, denouncing the rebels as “terrorists”.
The deal also called for a withdrawal of “illegal militant groups” from Ukraine, but the rebels remain heavily armed and it is not clear how many Russian “volunteer” soldiers are still there helping them.
Moscow says any Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine are freelance “volunteers”, although Ukraine and Western governments said Russia had earlier sent in regular army units.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Russia would support the separatists’ election, saying “Russia does not have unlimited levers of influence, and it is not worth exaggerating them.
“In this case, the main factor is not Russia’s influence but the decision taken by the leadership of these republics and these peoples,” he said.
A senior Ukrainian foreign ministry official, Dmytro Kuleba, told AFP that Moscow was jeopardizing the ceasefire deal signed in Minsk.
“Russia’s intentions directly contradict the Minsk accord, undermine the agreed process on de-escalation and peaceful resolution, and continue to weaken trust in it [Russia] as a reliable international partner,” he said.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko drew a parallel between the Donbass conflict and World War Two on Tuesday, saying: “This time it [war] appeared not from the west but from the east.”
“For the first time in 70 years, we again must defend Ukraine, its territorial integrity and freedom.”
Seven Ukrainian troops are said to have died in a clash with pro-Russian rebels near Donetsk airport.
The attack is the deadliest single incident for the military since a truce deal.
A tank shell hit the vehicle carrying the troops, an official said.
Three civilians were reportedly killed in other incidents.
Ukrainian activists earlier toppled a statue of Lenin in the eastern city of Kharkiv – a move likely to be seen as a provocation by pro-Russians.
Nationalist protesters had gathered around the statue on Sunday night for a “Kharkiv is Ukraine” rally. The governor of Kharkiv region, Ihor Baluta, then signed an order to dismantle the statue.
The mayor of Kharkiv, Gennady Kernes, said on a local government website that the monument would be restored, calling its destruction unlawful.
Seven Ukrainian troops are said to have died in a clash with pro-Russian rebels near Donetsk airport
Pro-Russian demonstrators defended the statue in February, as similar monuments were being taken down in other parts of the country in a wave of protests that accompanied the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Kharkiv has largely escaped the violence which subsequently swept through east Ukraine’s other regions, Donetsk and Luhansk.
The latest deaths cast fresh doubt on a ceasefire agreed between the Ukrainian government and the rebels on September 5.
The seven soldiers were killed in a vehicle near Donetsk airport, which the rebels have been trying to capture from the Ukrainian military.
“During the evening attack, the Ukrainian armoured transporter, with its crew and a paratroop unit, took a direct hit from a tank,” Ukrainian military spokesman Col Andriy Lysenko told reporters.
He said a total of nine soldiers had been killed and 27 wounded in the past 24 hours.
Separately, authorities in Donetsk told AFP news agency that three civilians had been killed over the same period. The city is a base for the pro-Russian rebels.
The OSCE, which is monitoring the ceasefire, confirmed there had been heavy shelling around Donetsk airport.
For several days Russian state television has reported on “mass graves” allegedly unearthed by rebels near Nizhnya Krynka, a village near Donetsk. At least four bodies have been found there, according to the Russian reports.
Eastern Ukraine’s regions, which are controlled by pro-Russian rebels, have been granted self-ruled, as well as an amnesty for the fighters themselves.
The measures voted by Ukraine’s parliament are in line with the September 5 cease-fire agreement signed by President Petro Poroshenko.
The European and Ukrainian parliaments have also voted to ratify a major EU-Ukraine association agreement.
The rebels have been battling Ukrainian government forces since their seizure of eastern regions bordering Russia.
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of backing the rebels with soldiers and heavy weapons. Russia denies doing so.
According to the UN, at least 3,000 people have been killed in the five-month conflict and more than 310,000 internally displaced in Ukraine.
The amnesty affects rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but does not cover the shooting down of the MH17 passenger plane in July.
Western leaders believe rebels shot down the Malaysia Airlines jet with a Russian missile – a charge the rebels and Russia deny.
Rebels accused of other “grave” crimes will not be covered by the new amnesty either.
Eastern Ukraine’s regions, which are controlled by pro-Russian rebels, have been granted self-ruled, as well as an amnesty for the fighters themselves
The rebels have controlled most of Donetsk and Luhansk regions since April. They launched their uprising soon after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
On September 16, there was heavy shelling around the government-held airport in Donetsk, despite a fragile cease-fire.
Meanwhile Russia is preparing to send extra troops to Crimea, Russian media reported.
They quoted Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying that deploying “proper and self-sufficient forces” there was a top priority in light of the “presence of foreign military in the immediate vicinity of our borders”.
The EU-Ukraine agreement ratified on Tuesday lies at the root of Ukraine’s crisis.
It was President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the deal in November last year that triggered mass protests and his eventual fall from power.
The votes ratifying the agreement took place simultaneously, with a live video link-up between the parliaments in Brussels and Kiev.
Both President Petro Poroshenko and the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, called it a historic day.
However, negotiations with Russia last week led to the free-trade part of the agreement being postponed until 2016.
There are fears in Ukraine that Russia will still try to scupper the deal.
The amnesty law passed by the Ukrainian parliament means pro-Russian separatists taken prisoner in the fighting should now be released.
Rebels holding government buildings in the east are now supposed to leave them, hand over captured Ukrainian soldiers and other prisoners and surrender their weapons.
However, many of the rebels are demanding full independence, and speak of creating a new state called “Novorossiya”, something Russian President Vladimir Putin has also mentioned in speeches.
Andre Purgin, a rebel leader in the eastern city of Donetsk, told AFP news agency that the eastern region “no longer has anything to do with Ukraine”.
“Ukraine is free to adopt any law it wants,” he is quoted as saying.
“But we are not planning any federalism with Ukraine.”
Andre Purgin nonetheless said the legislation was a “positive signal because it marks Kiev’s return to reality”.
President Petro Poroshenko said the proposals would guarantee the “sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence” of Ukraine, while paving the way for decentralization.
Ukraine association agreement (officially called the AA/DCFTA) would make Ukraine compliant with EU standards in the areas of human rights, security and arms control, and would remove trade barriers.
The pact has been signed, but Russia opposes the free-trade provisions, saying its market could be flooded with cheap EU goods shipped via Ukraine.
Until 2016 Ukraine will maintain its existing restrictions on imports from the EU, while enjoying full access to the EU market for its own exports.
In return, Russia has pledged to maintain favorable trade rules in place for Ukraine as an ex-Soviet republic.
Yet the crisis has severely hit Russia-Ukraine trade ties, with the two neighbors imposing economic sanctions on each other.
At least nine civilians are reportedly killed in an attack on a village in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine.
Pro-Russian rebels have accused the Ukrainian army of shelling and bombing the village of Luhanska.
But Ukrainian officials said their forces were not in the area, blaming the rebels themselves.
Hundreds of people have been killed since a pro-Russian rebellion began in eastern Ukraine. A shaky ceasefire ended on Monday.
President Petro Poroshenko had called the 10-day unilateral ceasefire, which rebel leaders later joined, but ended it as both sides accused each other of violations.
Diplomatic moves to renew the truce were stepped up on Wednesday as the German foreign minister hosted talks in Berlin with his Ukrainian, Russian and French counterparts.
Pro-Russian rebels have accused the Ukrainian army of shelling and bombing the village of Luhanska (photo AFP)
Five soldiers were killed and 28 wounded in rebel attacks in Donetsk region on Tuesday, the government said.
The civilian deaths came in the early hours of Wednesday, when several buildings were reportedly hit in the village of Luhanska.
Amateur videos were posted on YouTube showing ruined buildings and bodies on a street. Neither the reports of casualties nor the videos could be verified independently.
According to the rebel leadership in Luhansk, government forces attacked the village with artillery and from the air, killing 10 people on a single street. The situation was the same in another village, Nova Kondrashivka, a statement said, although there was no confirmation.
However, Ukrainian security forces in the region were quoted by Interfax news agency as saying the rebels had attacked the village themselves, at around 04:00 local time, causing deaths and damage.
While there had been artillery shelling in the area, it was “completely in the opposition direction”.
Ukrainian officials said on Facebook that no air force planes had been operating there at the time, although that statement was disputed by someone claiming to be a witness.
The rebels in Donetsk said separately that two of their fighters had been killed in fighting on Wednesday at Nikolayevka. They also reported that three members of the same family had been killed in the Kramatorsk-Sloviansk area (Donetsk) by government shelling.
Troops stationed above the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk fought off rebel attempts to break out of the encirclement, the government said, but lost one soldier killed and 10 wounded.
Ukraine’s forces and pro-Russian militants in the east have agreed to extend their week-long ceasefire by 72 hours.
President Petro Poroshenko is hoping for progress on his peace plan.
The announcement came hours after Petro Poroshenko had signed a landmark EU trade pact – the issue that has been the trigger of the recent crisis.
The deadline for the ceasefire to expire was Friday at 22:00.
Separatists in the east held talks on Friday with mediators, including Ukraine’s former President Leonid Kuchma, Moscow’s ambassador in Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Ukraine’s forces and pro-Russian militants in the east have agreed to extend their week-long ceasefire by 72 hours (photo AP)
The leader of the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” in the east, Alexander Borodai, said the new truce would be observed until June 30.
Petro Poroshenko met officials to discuss the truce after returning from Brussels.
A statement was later posted on the Ukrainian presidential website confirming the truce until 22:00 on Monday.
The statement pointed to a policy statement on Ukraine, issued by the European Council on Friday which set out key steps it expected to happen by Monday.
They include the return of three key checkpoints to Ukrainian forces and the “launch of substantial negotiations on the implementation of President Poroshenko’s peace plan”.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier said he would welcome an extension, but not if it were simply an ultimatum for separatists to lay down their arms.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted on a long-term ceasefire to allow for negotiations between the Ukrainian government and separatists, urging Petro Poroshenko to embark on a “path of peace, dialogue and accord”.
Petro Poroshenko set out a 15-point peace plan on 20 June. It involves decentralizing power and holding early local and parliamentary elections.
It also proposes the creation of a six-mile buffer zone on the Ukrainian-Russian border, and a safe corridor for pro-Russian separatists to leave the conflict areas.
Fighting is said to have continued in some areas of eastern Ukraine despite the ceasefire.
Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have announced that they will observe a ceasefire until Friday morning, responding to the Ukrainian forces’ unilateral ceasefire.
The rebel announcement was made in Donetsk by Alexander Borodai, a leader of the self-styled “Donetsk People’s Republic” which is defying Kiev.
On June 20, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced a 15-point peace plan and declared a week-long truce.
Alexander Borodai is known as one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic
Alexander Borodai was speaking after attending preliminary peace talks in Donetsk.
The high-level talks also involved representatives of the other breakaway region – Luhansk – and Viktor Medvedchuk, an opponent of the Kiev authorities who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s Ambassador Mikhail Zurabov was also there, along with former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who is seen as a mediator for President Poroshenko. European mediators from the OSCE security organization also participated.
Last week President Putin cautiously welcomed the Kiev ceasefire. The plan involves decentralizing power, holding early elections, and creating a 6-mile buffer zone on the Ukrainian-Russian border.
The rebels say they will not disarm until Ukrainian government troops have left the east. The militants still control key government buildings across Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
“The ceasefire will take effect as announced earlier – until 10:00 on June 27,” Alexander Borodai said, referring to President Poroshenko’s declaration on Friday.
“During that time there will be ceasefire monitoring by Russia and the OSCE.
“We hope that during the ceasefire both sides will manage to reach agreement and start consultations on how to proceed with talks and a peace settlement.”
At least 14 soldiers died in a dawn attack on a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine.
This is the worst loss of life for Ukrainian government forces to date.
Heavily armed militants attacked the checkpoint in the Volnovakha area, in one of four attacks reported overnight in eastern Ukraine.
The attacks come just three days before Ukraine’s presidential election.
At least 14 soldiers died in a dawn attack on a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine (photo AP)
Ukraine’s interim PM Arseny Yatseniuk has called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council, saying he has evidence of Russian involvement in the violence.
Russia appears to be withdrawing troops from its border with Ukraine, easing fears of a military intervention like in Crimea in March.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a tweet that Russian troop activity near the Ukraine border might suggest that some Russian forces were preparing to pull back.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops near the border to withdraw to their bases earlier this week. Correspondents say removing the troops – estimated to number 40,000 – could help de-escalate the Ukraine crisis.
Ukrainians go to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president but voting in Donetsk and Luhansk has been seriously disrupted by the insurgency there.
The election was called after the last elected President, Viktor Yanukovych, was deposed in February amid mass protests against his pro-Russian policies.
Photographs taken by an Associated Press news agency crew show bodies lying in a field or inside a car outside the village of Blahodatne, which is near the town of Volnovakha.
Three charred armored infantry vehicles, their turrets blown away by powerful explosions, and several burned lorries could also be seen.
Residents told AP the attackers had used an armored bank lorry which the unsuspecting Ukrainian soldiers had waved through the checkpoint. The attackers then reportedly shot down the soldiers at point-blank range.
In a recent report, the UN warns over an “alarming deterioration” in human rights in eastern Ukraine, where separatists are fighting security forces.
The UN also found “serious problems” of harassment and persecution of ethnic Tatars in Crimea, the mainly ethnic Russian region Moscow annexed in March.
Russia condemned the report, saying it ignored abuses by Ukraine’s government.
Meanwhile, a third-party initiative to restore law and order in one troubled city, Mariupol, seems to be succeeding.
Violence between separatists and pro-Ukrainian forces has left dozens dead in the east and south this month.
Violence between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces has left dozens dead in the east and south
Separatists control towns in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where they have been skirmishing with units of the Ukrainian security forces, sent in to reassert government control.
The revolt in the east gained momentum after Russia annexed Ukraine’s mainly ethnic Russian region of Crimea in March.
Moscow acted after the overthrow of Ukraine’s elected pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, during unrest in the capital Kiev in February, and his replacement with an interim government, backed by Ukrainian nationalists. A new Ukrainian president is due to be elected on May 25.
In another development, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has accused EU officials of risking war with Russia by displaying “megalomania” in Ukraine.
Helmut Schmidt, chancellor from 1974 to 1982, told German newspaper Bild: “The danger that the situation gets ever more tense, as it did in August 1914, is growing day by day.”
The UN’s conclusions are contained in a 37-page report, its second monthly assessment of the situation.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said in Geneva: “Those with influence on the armed groups responsible for much of the violence in eastern Ukraine [must] do their utmost to rein in these men who seem bent on tearing the country apart.”
The UN’s report details growing lawlessness in eastern and southern Ukraine:
Peaceful demonstrations, primarily by supporters of Ukraine’s unity, deteriorate into violence
Protesters are attacked and beaten
Local police do nothing to prevent the violence and sometimes openly co-operate with the attackers
UN monitors have also documented cases of targeted killings, torture and abduction, primarily carried out by anti-government forces in eastern Ukraine.
The report highlights threats to journalists and international observers, and abductions or attacks on some.
In its response, Russia’s foreign ministry said the report lacked any semblance of objectivity, and accused its authors of following “political orders” to whitewash Ukraine’s new, pro-Western leaders.
The report, it said in a statement in Russian, ignored “the crudest violations of human rights by the self-proclaimed Kiev authorities”.
Separatists in Donetsk announced on Thursday they were setting up their own parliament and were planning to open the border with Russia shortly.
Steelworkers in the flash-point port of Mariupol have begun citizen patrols after talks between officials from their company Metinvest, which is owned by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, and local police and community leaders.
Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk regions – have announced 89% and 96% respectively voted in favor of “self-rule”.
Ukraine has condemned two unofficial referendums organized in the east of the country as “a farce” with no legal basis.
Russia has called for the results to be implemented without any further outbreaks of violence.
In a brief statement, the Kremlin described the referendums as “the will of the people” and noted the “high turnout”.
Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk say 89 percent and 96 percent respectively voted in favor of self-rule (photo Getty Images)
The Russian authorities said they expected the results of the vote to be implemented in a civilized manner, without any repetition of violence and called for dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Luhansk.
The Kremlin suggested that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) could help organize such a dialogue.
Later Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there were no plans to hold fresh international talks on the crisis – he accused the West of an “information blockade” over events in Ukraine and of “shameless lies”.
Earlier, Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov told Ukraine’s parliament that “the farce that terrorist separatists call a referendum is nothing more than propaganda to cover up murders, kidnappings, violence and other serious crimes”.
The EU and US also said the polls were illegal.
A number of towns in the two eastern regions refused to hold the referendums.
They were held despite an earlier call by Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay them in order to create the conditions necessary for dialogue.
After the first round of voting in which voters were asked whether they supported self-rule, a second round of voting is planned in a week’s time, asking whether people support joining Russia.
Organizers also say they will boycott Ukraine’s presidential elections on May 25.
National guardsmen fired on a crowd Sunday in eastern Ukraine, where voters were lining up for a disputed referendum on whether to split from rest of the country.
Eastern Ukraine referendums seek approval to declare sovereign the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (photo CBC)
An insurgent leader was quoted by the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass as saying that there were fatalities.
The Associated Press reported that one of its photographers witnessed the shooting, in the town of Krasnoarmeisk, where dozens of guardsmen had shut down voting earlier in the day.
The photographer saw two people motionless on the ground, the AP reported.
Eastern Ukraine referendums seek approval to declare sovereign the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where armed pro-Russia insurgents have taken control of government buildings and clashed with Ukrainian troops.
Pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine are holding “self-rule” referendums – a move condemned by the Ukrainian government and the West.
Self-proclaimed leaders in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are going ahead with the vote despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call to postpone it.
Self-proclaimed leaders in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are going ahead with the vote despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call to postpone it
Ukraine says the vote could result in the “self-destruction” of the regions.
Pro-Russian gunmen occupying offices in a number of towns have been involved in heavy clashes with Ukrainian troops.
Reports say there was a fierce fighting overnight on the outskirts of the rebel-held city of Sloviansk, which remains sealed by government troops conducting what the government in Kiev describes as an “anti-terror” operation.
At least seven people were killed in clashes in the port of Mariupol on Friday, officials said.
Referendum organizers said earlier this week that most of the polling stations were controlled by pro-Russian activists and would be ready for voting.
Millions of ballot papers have been prepared.
They contain only one question in both Ukrainian and Russian: “Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People’s Republic/Luhansk People’s Republic?”
The organizers have suggested they intend to hold a second round of voting later this month, on joining Russia. They also say they will boycott Ukraine’s presidential elections on May 25.
There are no independent or international observers involved in Sunday’s vote.
On Saturday, Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov admitted many in eastern Ukraine supported the pro-Russian militants, but warned that the referendums were “a step towards the abyss”.
The EU and US have also condemned the referendums, amid fears that Ukraine could be sliding to civil war.
A survey by the Pew Research Centre suggested a majority even in eastern Ukraine – 70% – wanted to remain in a united country, despite concerns about governance.
President Vladimir Putin earlier called for a postponement of the vote to create the conditions necessary for dialogue.
Last month, Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern autonomous republic of Crimea, after a referendum.
Ukraine’s government has released photos that it says show Russian soldiers among militants holding official buildings in eastern region of the country.
Handed to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) last week, the photos have since been distributed by the US state department.
They are said to show Russian soldiers or paramilitaries in flashpoint towns in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
Russia denies it has military units on the ground in Donetsk.
Pro-Russian militants are holding official buildings in towns and cities in the east.
According to the Ukrainian press release, the photos show the same bearded gunman taking part in militant operations in the Donetsk towns of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk this year, and in operations in Georgia in 2008.
The US State Department has released photos purportedly showing the same bearded Russian soldier in operations in Georgia in 2008 and Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in Ukraine in 2014
However, in the 2014 photos, his greying beard appears to be black while in Georgia six years ago, the slimmer-looking man shown has a reddish beard.
Other unverified photos are said to show the same masked gunman in both Donetsk and Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed last month by Russia.
The Ukrainian press release argues that the photos are proof of a Russian special forces unit operating in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s permanent representative to the International Organizations in Vienna said the photos provided “growing evidence of Russia’s involvement in instigating and co-ordinating the separatist actions that destabilise the situation in the east of Ukraine”.
US state department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said there was “broad unity in the international community about the connection between Russia and some of the armed militants in eastern Ukraine”.
“The photos presented by the Ukrainians last week only further confirm this,” she said, adding that it was a “pivotal period” for Russia to “use their influence to de-escalate the situation in Eastern Ukraine”.
Russia has previously denied it is destabilizing Ukraine, and warned the authorities in Kiev against any use of force against pro-Russian demonstrators.
“There are no Russian units, special services or instructors in the east of Ukraine,” President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday.
Kiev’s operations against pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine have been suspended over Easter, Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia has announced.
However, Andriy Deshchytsia said, Ukraine’s security services would resume military action if the separatists continued to occupy government offices.
They are refusing to leave buildings in several cities, defying an agreement reached on Thursday to ease the crisis.
The US has threatened more sanctions if Russia fails to abide by the agreement.
The Kremlin responded by accusing the White House of treating Moscow like a “guilty schoolboy”.
Kiev’s operations against pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine have been suspended over Easter (photo AFP)
In a separate development, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would award medals to Russians who took part in the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine last month.
The Ukrainian foreign minister added that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was willing to start a negotiation process with the separatists.
In response to separatist calls for pro-European protesters in Kiev to also vacate sites they were occupying, he said that those camped in the capital’s Maidan Square had “asked permission from the city council” and their camp was therefore not an “illegal occupation”.
Russia, Ukraine, the EU and US had agreed during talks in Geneva that illegal military groups in Ukraine must be dissolved, and that those occupying government premises must be disarmed and leave.
The sides also decided there would be an amnesty for all anti-government protesters.
But the separatists’ spokesman in the city of Donetsk said that the Kiev government was “illegal”, and vowed they would not go until it stepped down.
After cautiously welcoming the deal struck on Thursday, the White House stepped up pressure on Russia to use its influence over separatists occupying the buildings in nine cities and towns in eastern Ukraine.
On Friday, US National Security Adviser Susan Rice warned that if Moscow failed to uphold the deal a new round of sanctions would focus on what she called “very significant sectors of the Russian economy”.
Susan Rice added that the US had identified close associates of the Russian leadership as potential targets for new sanctions.
Russia responded by saying it was disappointed with the US assessment of the Geneva deal.
“You can’t treat Russia like a guilty schoolboy who has to… show he has done his homework,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said.
Pro-Russian militants in Donetsk say they will not leave the government building there, defying the Kiev authorities and threatening a new international deal on Ukraine.
The separatists’ spokesman said that the Kiev government was “illegal”, so they would not go until the Kiev government stepped down.
Russia, Ukraine, the EU and US earlier agreed that illegal military groups in Ukraine must leave official buildings.
They reached the deal in Geneva.
Pro-Russian militants in Donetsk say they will not leave the government building there, defying the Kiev authorities and threatening a new international deal on Ukraine
Alexander Gnezdilov, spokesman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said his group would evacuate the government building in the eastern city only when the “illegal” Kiev government vacated parliament and the presidential administration.
A tense standoff continues in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists – many of them armed – are occupying official buildings in at least nine cities and towns.
Another protest leader in Donetsk said the separatists would not leave unless pro-European demonstrators in Kiev’s Maidan Square packed up their camp first.
President Barack Obama cautiously welcomed the Geneva deal, but warned that the US and its allies were ready to impose new sanctions on Russia if the situation failed to improve.
On Friday there were reports of some shooting in Serhiyivka, in Donetsk region.
Ukrainian paratroopers opened fire to remove a protesters’ roadblock in Serhiyivka, Interfax-Ukraine reported, quoting local sources. The details have not been confirmed.
Russia denies fomenting separatism in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Six Ukrainian armored vehicles have been seized by pro-Russian militants in eastern town of Kramatorsk, the defense ministry in Kiev says.
Reports say the occupants were disarmed after the vehicles were blockaded by locals in the city of Kramatorsk.
The incident comes a day after the military began an operation to remove pro-Russian protesters from public buildings across eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, NATO is increasing activity in member states bordering Russia.
After Ukrainian forces recaptured an airfield outside Kramatorsk on Tuesday, armored vehicles appeared in the centre of the town early on Wednesday.
“A column was blocked by a crowd of local people in Kramatorsk with members of a Russian diversionary-terrorist group among them,” the defense ministry said its statement.
The military vehicles were then taken to Sloviansk where they are being held by “people in uniforms who have no relation to Ukraine’s armed forces,” the ministry said.
The Ukrainian troops appear to have been disarmed before being fed by pro-Russian militants at a cafe in Sloviansk and then put on a bus back to their home city of Dnipropetrovsk.
Six Ukrainian armored vehicles have been seized by pro-Russian militants in eastern town of Kramatorsk
In another incident, several hundred residents of Pchyolkino, south of Sloviansk, surrounded another column of 14 Ukrainian military vehicles.
After the crowd was reinforced by pro-Russian gunmen, negotiations ensued and the troops were allowed to drive their vehicles away, but only after agreeing to surrender the magazines from their assault rifles.
The episodes come amid increasing tension across eastern Ukraine, blamed by the Kiev government and the West on covert Russian intervention in the region – an allegation denied by Moscow.
The crisis escalated this month after pro-Russian rebels occupied buildings in about 10 towns and cities, demanding greater autonomy or referendums on secession.
Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers are believed to have massed on Ukraine’s borders since Russia took control of the Ukrainian region of Crimea last month, following a controversial referendum on self-determination.
As tensions rose, Ukraine’s acting Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval headed for the east of the country to monitor the progress of the “anti-terrorist operation” announced by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov on Tuesday.
In the city of Donetsk, where activists have been occupying the regional government building since April 6, pro-Russian gunmen have taken control of the mayor’s office.
They told an AFP correspondent their only demand was for the region to stage a referendum on turning Ukraine into a federation with broader local rights.
Meanwhile NATO announced it was beefing up its eastern members’ defenses.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen promised “more planes in the air, mores ships on the water, more readiness on the land”.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen called on Russia to make clear it did not “support the violent actions of well-armed militias or pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine”.
Ukrainian soldiers sent to reclaim locations seized by pro-Russian militia in recent days, have been seen in the centre of Kramatorsk.
Kramatorsk’s airfield was recaptured on Tuesday after Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov announced an “anti-terror operation”.
Armored personnel carriers in the town were blocked by pro-Russian locals who were talking to the soldiers.
Tension is running high, with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin warning Ukraine is “on the verge of civil war”.
Vladimir Putin made the comments in a phone call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, after President Oleksandr Turchynov announced the start of the operation on Tuesday.
Russian officials said both leaders “emphasized the importance” during the conversation of planned four-way talks on Thursday between senior diplomats from Russia, the EU, the US and Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers sent to reclaim locations seized by pro-Russian militia in recent days, have been seen in the centre of Kramatorsk
However, Ukrainian and Western officials have accused Russia of being behind the pro-Russia activism in the region. Moscow strongly denies fomenting the unrest.
Ukrainian counter-terrorism chief General Vasyl Krutov, speaking to reporters at Kramatorsk airfield late on Tuesday, emphasized that armed individuals had crossed the border into Ukraine.
“We have to deal with a very serious, highly skilled and very professional opponent,” he said according to Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
“They display a very high level of preparedness, tactical and practical skill. These people must have been to hot spots across the world and on their own territory.”
Last month’s annexation of Crimea by Moscow was preceded by the presence of uniformed, armed men believed to be Russian troops, although in greater numbers than the similarly dressed and equipped men who have been seen in eastern Ukraine, correspondents say.
The Kremlin has condemned the Ukrainian military operation in eastern Ukraine as an “anti-constitutional course to use force against peaceful protest actions”.
Russia’s foreign ministry has expressed “deep concern” at reports of casualties in eastern Ukraine, but these cannot be confirmed.
Tensions have mounted in recent days after pro-Russian rebels seized buildings in about 10 towns and cities across eastern Ukraine.
They are demanding greater autonomy or referendums on secession from Ukraine.