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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.Ukraine peace talks Minsk 2015

“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.

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

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.

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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

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.”

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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

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.

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Lithuania’s honorary consul in Luhansk, Mykola Zelenec, has been killed in the rebel-held Ukrainian city.

Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius tweeted that Mykola Zelenec was “kidnapped & brutally killed by terrorists there”.

Ukraine routinely calls the pro-Russian separatists in Luhansk “terrorists”.

The news came amid reports that some Russian aid trucks had reached Luhansk without any permission from Ukraine.

There has been no comment from the rebels yet on the Lithuanian diplomat’s death.

Lithuania is among the most vociferous EU member states in its criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine. The EU and US accuse Russia of fomenting the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

The news of Mykola Zelenec’s killing came amid reports that some Russian aid trucks had reached Luhansk without any permission from Ukraine

The news of Mykola Zelenec’s killing came amid reports that some Russian aid trucks had reached Luhansk without any permission from Ukraine

Linas Linkevicius described the entry of the Russian aid convoy into eastern Ukraine as “a blatant violation of international law”, echoing Ukraine’s condemnation of the move.

The UN Security Council is holding an emergency session at Lithuania’s request to discuss the issue.

The Ukraine crisis has heightened tensions between Russia and the three Baltic republics – including Lithuania – which used to be Soviet republics governed from Moscow.

Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, lambasted the Lithuanian delegation on Friday.

He scorned “the indefatigable delegation of Lithuania, which is always torpedoing all productive, constructive initiatives we’ve had in the Security Council”.

Vitaly Churkin said Lithuania had amended a Russian proposal calling for a ceasefire while the aid was distributed in Luhansk. He said the Lithuanian delegation “sent in amendments where they dropped the reference to Russia and included a reference to the European Union, and then dropped the reference to a ceasefire”.

At the UN, Vitaly Churkin added, “the Lithuanian delegation starts working, and of course we know the division of labor – the US and UK are not far behind”.

The Russian aid convoy has moved across the Ukrainian border, without permission, after Russia accused Ukraine of obstructing it.

Russia’s foreign ministry said Ukraine had held up the convoy in order to pursue war against rebels in Luhansk, where the aid is destined.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was “not part of that convoy in any way”.

Reports suggest the trucks are being escorted by rebel fighters.

“Our humanitarian aid convoy is starting to move towards Luhansk,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

It warned Ukraine not to take any action against the convoy without specifying the consequences.

Ukraine fears that the aid convoy of at least 260 trucks, which arrived at the border more than a week ago, is part of a broader Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Russia denies accusations that it arms and trains the rebels in the rebellion in Luhansk and the neighboring region of Donetsk, where four months of fighting have left more than 2,000 people dead and has caused more than 330,000 people to flee their homes.

The Russian aid convoy has moved across the Ukrainian border, without permission

The Russian aid convoy has moved across the Ukrainian border, without permission (photo Reuters)

The rebel-held city of Luhansk has been without running water, power and phone communications for 20 days as government forces hold it under siege.

As many as 70 trucks have entered Ukrainian territory, moving out of the no-man’s land between the Russian and Ukrainian border posts.

Reporters at the scene saw rebel fighters in front of the convoy as it passed over the border, in a rebel-held sector near the Russian town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky.

It is normally a drive of about two hours from the trucks’ camp to the city of Luhansk.

However, it is unclear if the convoy will be able to use the motorway there because of continuing combat between rebels and government forces.

An ICRC spokesperson in Moscow said it had concluded that it had not “received the necessary security guarantees from the fighting parties to allow us to escort the convoy at this time”.

It cited “heavy shelling overnight” in Luhansk.

“We understand that the convoy is now moving, however the ICRC is not part of that convoy in any way,” the spokesperson added.

The Russian branch of the ICRC said earlier it was ready to take part in the relief operation and was contacting its international colleagues.

“We are warning against any attempts to sabotage this purely humanitarian mission, which was prepared a long time ago, in an atmosphere of full transparency and in co-operation with the Ukrainian side and the ICRC,” the Russian foreign ministry said.

Delays in Ukrainian clearance for the convoy had “become unbearable”, it said.

“All excuses for blocking the delivery of aid to people in the area where this humanitarian catastrophe is happening have been exhausted,” it added.

“The Russian side has decided to act. Our convoy carrying humanitarian aid is beginning to move towards Luhansk.”

There was no immediate comment on news of the convoy’s entry from the Ukrainian authorities.

Ukrainian media did report, however, that the convoy had not received the go-ahead from Ukraine.

In a statement on its website, Luhansk’s official council reported on August 22 that the dire situation in the city remained unchanged with no halt in the bombardment.

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Ukraine military claims rockets and mortars hit vehicles moving refugees from the Luhansk area of eastern Ukraine killing dozens of civilians.

Ukraine has blamed pro-Russian rebels but they have denied carrying out the attack, near the village of Novosvitlivka.

A rebel news outlet reported a heavy exchange of artillery fire in the area.

Ukrainian forces have moved into the outskirts of rebel-held Luhansk where basic supplies are running out.

Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said “militants” armed by Russia had fired at a refugee convoy with mortars and Grad rockets, on a road east of Luhansk.

He said “dozens” of civilians had died, including women and children.

“The convoy had white flags and was marked as civilian,” Andriy Lysenko said.

Another military spokesman said people had been burned alive inside their vehicles.

A spokesman for the rebel self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”, Andrei Purgin, denied that rebel forces had attacked the convoy.

Ukraine military claims rockets and mortars hit vehicles moving refugees from the Luhansk area killing dozens of civilians

Ukraine military claims rockets and mortars hit vehicles moving refugees from the Luhansk area killing dozens of civilians

“The Ukrainians themselves have bombed the road constantly with planes and Grads. It seems they’ve now killed more civilians like they’ve been doing for months now,” he was quoted as saying.

Alexander Zakharchenko, a rebel leader in Donetsk, told journalists: “Not a single convoy of refugees was shot at in the Luhansk region.”

There has been sustained artillery shelling of Luhansk, a city of 250,000 people, where civilians are suffering chronic shortages of water, food and electricity. Before the conflict, the population was closer to 420,000.

Hundreds of civilians are fleeing the city every day as Ukrainian forces edge into Luhansk.

The key rebel-held town of Horlivka near Donetsk has been encircled, military officials say, in another sign that the separatists have lost ground in recent days.

Also on Monday, the rebel-led administration in Donetsk said they had introduced the death penalty for offences including treason, desertion and sabotage.

Eduard Yakubovsky, acting prosecutor-general of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said the penalty would also cover “military crimes committed… on the battlefield, such as handing over military hardware or weapons”.

Observers said the move could indicate problems within the rebels’ ranks.

More than 2,000 civilians and combatants have been killed since mid-April, when Ukraine’s government sent troops to put down the rebel uprising in the east.

Russia has said an aid convoy of some 270 lorries to a base near the Ukrainian border. The lorries are parked close to a rebel-held border post awaiting inspection as the Red Cross wants security guarantees before the aid can enter Ukraine.

Earlier Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said full agreement had been reached on the aid convoy after talks in Berlin with his counterparts from Ukraine, Germany and France.

Sergei Lavrov said no deal had been reached on achieving a ceasefire.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “the aim remains to bring about a ceasefire in Ukraine and to prevent future victims”.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the talks in Berlin had been “a difficult discussion but I believe and I hope that we made progress on some points”.

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A Ukrainian military plane has been shot down in the east, amid fighting with pro-Russian separatist rebels, Ukrainian officials say.

They say the An-26 plane was hit at an altitude of 21,325ft.

The plane was targeted with “a more powerful missile” than a shoulder-carried missile, “probably fired” from Russia. The crew survived.

Russia has made no comment. Separately, NATO reported a Russian troop build-up near the Ukraine border.

The Ukrainian military plane has been shot down in the east, amid fighting with pro-Russian separatist rebels

The Ukrainian military plane has been shot down in the east, amid fighting with pro-Russian separatist rebels

Russia denies supporting and arming the separatists, and has invited officials from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to monitor its border with Ukraine.

A statement on Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko’s website said the An-26 was taking part in an “anti-terror operation” in the region.

The statement quoted Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletei as saying that a search-and-rescue operation was now under way.

Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s security and defense council, was later quoted by Ukrainian media as saying that eight people were on board the plane.

Rebel forces earlier said they had targeted the aircraft in the Luhansk region.

This comes as the Ukrainian air force said it had delivered “five powerful air strikes” on targets in the region in a bid to end a rebel blockade of a strategic airport there.

Several targets were hit near the airport in the rebel-held city of Luhansk, a military spokesman said.

Ukraine’s military later said the airport had been “unblocked” and the army had retaken several villages.

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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

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.

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A Ukrainian military transport plane has been shot down by pro-Russian rebels in Luhansk, killing all 49 Ukrainian service personnel on board.

Ukraine’s defense ministry said the Il-76 transport plane crashed after coming under anti-aircraft fire over Luhansk.

In a statement it said “terrorists” had “cynically and treacherously” fired on the aircraft.

The plane was carrying troops and military equipment and was about to land at the city’s airport.

It is thought to be the biggest loss of life suffered by government forces in a single incident since Kiev began an operation to try to defeat the insurgency in east Ukraine.

A Ukrainian military transport plane has been shot down by pro-Russian rebels in Luhansk, killing all 49 people on board

A Ukrainian military transport plane has been shot down by pro-Russian rebels in Luhansk, killing all 49 people on board

Military spokesman Vladislav Seleznov said “preliminary information” suggested all 49 military personnel on board the aircraft – nine flight crew and 40 troops – were killed.

He added that the investigation was just beginning into how the separatists brought down the plane, but initial reports indicated that three “Stinger-like” missiles were used.

The incident came less than a week after pro-Russia rebels launched a series of attacks on Ukrainian forces at Luhansk International Airport.

The airport has been under the control of government forces but the rebels hold most of the rest of the city.

Luhansk is the main city of one of two eastern regions where pro-Russia separatists have declared independence from Kiev.

The “anti-terrorist operation” by Ukraine government forces has left at least 270 people dead over the past two months.

Ukraine’s new President Petro Poroshenko had said that fighting must end “this week” following his inauguration in Kiev last Sunday.

Meanwhile, the US said it was confident that tanks being used by separatists in eastern Ukraine came from Russia.

“Russia will claim these tanks were taken from Ukrainian forces, but no Ukrainian tank units have been operating in that area,” a US state department spokeswoman said.

“We are confident that these tanks came from Russia,” she added.

The appearance of the tanks, filmed in various towns in the Donetsk region, sparked a row between Kiev and Moscow.

Russia has denied allegations that the tanks had entered Ukraine from its territory.

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Two Ukrainian military bases in the eastern region of Luhansk have been taken by separatist rebels as fighting continues near the rebel-held town of Sloviansk.

Separatists seized a border guard base after days of fierce combat, and a National Guard base after an attack which began on Tuesday.

An apparent air attack in Luhansk city on Monday killed a number of civilians.

Meanwhile, in the neighboring Donetsk region, troops are closing in on the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk.

Pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, declared independence after holding referendums last month which were declared illegal by the government in Kiev.

Two Ukrainian military bases in the eastern region of Luhansk have been taken by separatist rebels as fighting continues near the rebel-held town of Sloviansk

Two Ukrainian military bases in the eastern region of Luhansk have been taken by separatist rebels as fighting continues near the rebel-held town of Sloviansk

The rebellion began amid the turmoil which followed the downfall in February of the elected Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, whose pro-Moscow policies sparked mass street protests in Kiev during the winter.

Reports of casualties in the fighting in Luhansk could not be verified independently.

Ukraine’s border service announced on its website that the personnel in the base of the Luhansk border detachment had been “redeployed to safer places” as a result of sustained attacks by large rebel forces.

The National Guard base came under sustained fire from mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, machine-guns and assault rifles on Tuesday after the soldiers rejected an ultimatum from a large rebel force to surrender, according to a report on the National Guard’s website.

Three soldiers were wounded and all of the base’s vehicles and its headquarters building were destroyed in the fighting, the statement said. The garrison, it added, had now been “redeployed to a different, safe place”.

However, a rebel spokesman told Russia’s Ria-Novosti news agency the soldiers had surrendered and had been allowed to “go home”.

The Russian news website ura.ru quoted a rebel commander as saying there had been “no battle as such” and the soldiers had simply surrendered after spiking some of their weapons.

Investigations are continuing into the attack on the rebel-held regional administrative building in Luhansk on Monday afternoon. Rebels have accused the Ukrainian air force of killing eight civilians in the attack, and graphic video of bodies at the scene has been posted on websites.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that, based on available evidence, “these strikes were the result of non-guided rockets shot from an aircraft. The number of casualties is unknown”.

But the Ukrainian authorities deny their planes were involved and suggest the damage was caused by the rebels themselves.

Ukraine’s interim President, Olexandr Turchynov, said in a statement on Tuesday that the northern part of Donetsk region had been “fully cleared” of separatists and the military had started blocking the border with Russia in the north and east of Luhansk region.

Government forces took the town of Krasnyi Lyman, north-east of Sloviansk, after heavy fighting.

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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

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.

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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

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.

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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

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.

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Pro-Russian separatists have stormed the regional administration’s headquarters in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk.

A few dozen men, some reportedly armed with metal bars, smashed windows and doors to break into the building.

Activists shouting “Referendum Russia” later flew a Russian flag over it.

Earlier, Russia criticized sanctions imposed by the US and EU on individuals and companies over their alleged actions aimed at destabilizing Ukraine.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the US had “essentially lowered an <<Iron Curtain>>” by targeting Russia’s high-tech sector.

The EU, he added, had proved that it was “under Washington’s thumb”.

Pro-Russian separatists have stormed the regional administration's headquarters in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk

Pro-Russian separatists have stormed the regional administration’s headquarters in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk (photo AFP)

Russia’s Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin meanwhile warned that if the sanctions affected its rocket-building sector, US astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) might be “exposed”.

Sergei Ryabkov also stressed that Russia had no intention of invading eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia activists have seized government buildings in more than a dozen towns and cities.

Until now, only the local office of the State Security Service (SBU) in Luhansk, a city of 465,000 people less than 20 miles from the Russian border, had been targeted.

But on Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of people gathered outside the headquarters of the regional government to demand a referendum on granting greater autonomy to the east.

A group of men armed with sticks and metal bars broke into the building, whose entrances were not protected by police. They then pulled down the Ukrainian flag flying from the roof and replaced it with a Russian one, and opened the main entrance to the crowd.

Inside the building’s courtyard, they found security personnel in riot gear massed in a defensive position. There was a stand-off, but no violence.

“The regional leadership does not control its police force,” Stanislav Rechynsky, an aide to the interior minister in Kiev, told Reuters news agency.

“The local police did nothing.”

Stanislav Rechynsky added that the government had information to suggest that the separatists would now seize the local television centre.

Eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population, was a stronghold for former President Viktor Yanukovych before he was overthrown by protesters in February.

The interim government has rejected the pro-Russian activists’ demands for greater autonomy, fearing they could lead to the break-up of the country or more regions being annexed by Russia, as happened with Crimea last month.

Pro-Russian activists continue to detain some 40 people, including seven military observers linked to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) seized last week.

The self-styled “mayor” of the town of Sloviansk, where the observers are being held, has said he will discuss their release only if the EU drops sanctions against separatist leaders.

On Tuesday, the EU published a fresh list of 15 individuals facing travel banks and asset freezes.

It included General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, and Lt. Gen. Igor Sergun, identified as the head of the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU.

Russian Deputy PM Dmitry Kozak and pro-Russian separatist leaders in Crimea and in Luhansk and Donetsk were also named.

On Monday, the US announced sanctions against seven individuals and 17 companies it said were linked to President Vladimir Putin’s “inner circle”.

The US and EU first imposed visa bans and asset freezes on a number of senior Russian officials and companies after Crimea was annexed.

US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the sanctions had so far caused “a quite substantial deterioration in Russia’s already weak economy”.

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Ukraine’s interim PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk has offered to devolve more powers to eastern regions, where pro-Russian separatists are defying the government.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk is holding talks with regional leaders in Donetsk, where activists demanding self-rule are holding a big government building.

It is not clear if the prime minister’s offer will satisfy the separatists.

The threat of Russia cutting gas deliveries has now prompted Ukraine to seek gas from French and German firms.

The EU says it can pump gas back to Ukraine with reverse-flow pipeline technology. Usually the Russian gas flows to Europe via Ukraine.

In Kiev, Ukraine’s Energy Minister Yuri Prodan said it would seek the gas “on the conditions offered by European gas companies”, which he named as Germany’s RWE and “a French gas company”.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk is holding talks with regional leaders in Donetsk, where activists demanding self-rule are holding a big government building

Arseniy Yatsenyuk is holding talks with regional leaders in Donetsk, where activists demanding self-rule are holding a big government building (photo CNN)

On Thursday, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said in a letter to 18 European countries that gas supplies to Ukraine could be cut if Kiev did not pay off its debts, and warned this could affect gas deliveries to Europe.

In 2009, a Russian gas dispute with Ukraine led to gas shortages in several EU countries.

Gazprom says Ukraine owes it $2.2 billion (1.4 billion euros) and recently doubled the price it must pay.

The US has accused Russia of using energy “as a tool of coercion” over Ukraine, and says it is working to help Ukraine find gas and financing.

In Donetsk, Arseniy Yatsenyuk urged regional leaders to tell locals that the Kiev government would ensure security and economic progress in the east, Interfax news agency reports.

“In the framework of the changed constitution, we will be able to satisfy specific requests of every single region,” he pledged.

But Kiev has rejected Russian pressure to turn Ukraine into a loose federation, fearing that more regions could break away and join Russia.

The separatist protest follows Russia’s annexation of Crimea last month – described as the biggest political confrontation in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

Near Donetsk on Friday seven miners died in a gas explosion, apparently unrelated to the current tensions.

The mainly Russian-speaking region is dominated by Soviet-era coal-mining and heavy industry.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk pledged that the Russian language would keep its official status in the region, in parallel with Ukrainian.

Language is a highly sensitive issue in eastern Ukraine, where ties with Russia are strong.

The billionaire industrialist Rinat Akhmetov – reckoned to be Ukraine’s richest man – is participating in the talks.

NATO says up to 40,000 Russian troops are massed near Ukraine’s eastern border.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for legal guarantees of Ukraine’s neutrality, reminding NATO that it should not try to draw Ukraine into the alliance.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk is also expected to travel to another eastern city, Dnipropetrovsk, which has also seen protests.

Activists in Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking east have also been occupying a state security building in the city of Luhansk, with gunmen armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles among them.

Ukrainian officials are trying to negotiate a deal whereby the protesters would vacate the buildings in return for protection from prosecution.

The interim government accuses Russia of orchestrating the unrest, as a provocation similar to the anti-Kiev protests which gripped Crimea. Russia denies the claim.

Talks are due to take place in Geneva next week between Russia, Ukraine, US and the EU – the first four-way discussions since the crisis began.

Pro-Russian protesters have declared People’s Republic of Donetsk after seizing the regional government building in the eastern Ukrainian city.

The rebels have called for a referendum on secession from Ukraine by May 11.

Ukrainian security officials are being sent to the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv after pro-Russia groups occupied government buildings.

Ukraine’s Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called the unrest an attempt by Russia to “dismember” Ukraine.

In an address on national TV, Oleksandr Turchynov said it was “the second wave” of a Russian operation to destabilize Ukraine, overthrow the government and disrupt planned elections.

Russia recently annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula after a referendum there which Ukraine did not see as valid.

As tensions mounted on Monday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya told Russia’s Ekho Moskvy news agency that Kiev would go to war with Russia if it sent troops into eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has thousands of troops massed along its border with Ukraine. It says it has no intention of invading but reserves the right to protect the rights of ethnic Russians.

Earlier on Monday, protesters seized state security buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Protesters broke into Donetsk’s regional government building and another in Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second largest city – on Sunday. Ukrainian authorities say protesters have now left the building in Kharkiv.

Pro-Russian protesters have declared People’s Republic of Donetsk after seizing the regional government building in the eastern Ukrainian city

Pro-Russian protesters have declared People’s Republic of Donetsk after seizing the regional government building in the eastern Ukrainian city

Ukrainian news agency Unian says gunmen also tried to storm a Donetsk TV building on Monday but were deterred by police.

At an emergency cabinet meeting, interim PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk blamed Russia for the seizures.

“The plan is to destabilize the situation, the plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow,” he said, adding that people engaged in the unrest had distinct Russian accents.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russian troops remain within 19 miles of the frontier. The city of Luhansk is just 16 miles from the Russian border.

Police have blocked roads into Luhansk and armed reinforcements are being sent to the restive cities.

Officials said Ukrainian National Security Secretary Andriy Parubiy and Security Service chief Valentyn Nalyvaychenko have been sent to the city.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has already arrived in Kharkiv and First Deputy PM Vitaly Yarema is on his way to Donetsk, a spokeswoman said.

She said the three officials had “all the authority necessary to take action against separatism.”

President Oleksandr Turchynov has cancelled a visit to Lithuania to deal with the unfolding events.

Russia’s foreign ministry said it was “closely watching” events in eastern Ukraine, “particularly in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions”.

It reiterated Moscow’s demands for the creation of a federal Ukraine with broader powers for provinces.

“Stop pointing to Russia, blaming it for all of the troubles of today’s Ukraine,” the statement said.

The crisis has heightened nervousness in many other eastern European states, with Czech President Milos Zeman saying NATO should deploy troops in Ukraine if Russia invades.

“If Russia decides to extend its territorial expansion to eastern Ukraine, the fun is over,” he told Czech public radio on Sunday.

In another development on Monday, NATO said it was limiting Russian diplomats’ access to its headquarters in Brussels.

It comes days after NATO foreign ministers agreed to suspend all practical co-operation with Moscow over its annexation of Crimea.

The latest developments come as Ukraine’s defense ministry said a Russian soldier had killed a Ukrainian military officer still loyal to Kiev in eastern Crimea late on Sunday.

The circumstances are unclear. Russian news agencies said prosecutors had opened a criminal investigation into the death.

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Pro-Russian protesters have seized state security buildings in eastern Ukraine’s cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, officials say.

Reports say that in Luhansk the protesters have raided the arsenal in the security building. Police have reacted by blocking roads into Luhansk.

On Sunday, activists broke into the regional government buildings in the two cities and also Kharkiv.

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has called an emergency security meeting.

It comes as Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said a Russian soldier had killed a Ukrainian military officer still loyal to Kiev in eastern Crimea late on Sunday.

Another Ukrainian officer present is reported to have been beaten and detained by Russian troops.

Pro-Russian protesters have seized state security buildings in eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian protesters have seized state security buildings in eastern Ukraine (photo Reuters)

The circumstances of the incident are unclear. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted the Defense Ministry as saying the incident happened outside the Ukrainian’s living quarters.

Russian reports said a group of Ukrainian soldiers had been drinking in the town of Novofyodorovka and were on their way home when they passed Russian soldiers guarding an entry to the military base where they previously worked, prompting an argument between the two groups.

Russian news agencies reported that prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the death – one of few fatalities reported since Russia took control of Crimea last month.

Tensions have escalated in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks. Russia is consolidating its grip on Crimea, annexed by Moscow last month, and thousands of Russian troops remain massed near the Ukrainian border.

Ukrainian authorities say protesters have now left the government building in Kharkiv.

In Luhansk, on Monday police said “unknown people who are in the building have broken into the building’s arsenal and have seized weapons”.

In Donetsk, groups occupying the provincial government building remain barricaded inside.

President Oleksandr Turchynov cancelled a visit to Lithuania to deal personally with the unfolding events.

Meanwhile Ukraine’s PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk has accused Russia on Monday of sowing unrest in his country’s eastern provinces as a pretext for dispatching troops across the border.

Speaking at an emergency Cabinet meeting, Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russia was behind the seizures of several government buildings in eastern regions that have for weeks seen a spike in secessionist sentiment.

“The plan is to destabilize the situation, the plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow,” he said, adding that people engaged in the unrest have distinct Russian accents.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russian troops remain stationed within 19 miles of the frontier. The city of Luhansk is just 15 miles west of Russia.

Eastern Ukraine was the political heartland of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president who fled to Russia in February after months of protests.

About half of the region’s residents are ethnic Russians, many of whom believe Ukraine’s acting authorities are extreme Ukrainian nationalists who will oppress Russians – a claim Kiev denies.

Russia has moved large numbers of troops to areas near the Ukrainian border, and has asserted its right to intervene in Ukraine in order to protect the rights of ethnic Russians there.

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Pro-Russian protesters have stormed government buildings in eastern Ukrainian cities Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv.

Protesters clashed with police, waved Russian flags and called for a referendum on independence from Ukraine.

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov called an emergency security meeting.

The unrest comes amid tensions between Russia and Ukraine over the removal of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

In Donetsk, about 50 people broke away from a rally of about 2,000 people in the city centre, and got past a police cordon to enter the regional administration building.

The activists shouted “Donetsk is a Russian city” and raised Russian flags above the building.

Pro-Russian protesters clashed with police, waved Russian flags and called for a referendum on independence from Ukraine

Pro-Russian protesters clashed with police, waved Russian flags and called for a referendum on independence from Ukraine (photo Reuters)

Some called for the region to have a referendum on the region’s independence from Ukraine.

A similar referendum held in the Crimean peninsula in March led to Russia’s annexation.

In Luhansk, near the Russian border, dozens of demonstrators stormed the offices of the state security agency.

Ukrainian media said protesters pelted the building with eggs, a smoke grenade and a firebomb.

Similar incidents were later reported in Kharkiv.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has vowed to protect Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine.

President Oleksandr Turchynov has cancelled a diplomatic trip to Lithuania to deal with the unrest, according to his press service.

The statement said Oleksandr Turchynov would hold an emergency meeting with the heads of security services.

Tensions are running high between Ukraine and Russia, with thousands of Russian soldiers still said to be deployed along the border.

Viktor Yanukovych was forced from office in February, following months of street protests.

The new administration has faced continuing opposition from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions, particularly in the east of the country.

Russia has said it will defend the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine – which it claims are under threat under the new government – but has said it will not send troops into the rest of the country.

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