At least two people were killed and nine wounded yesterday in gunbattles between Ukrainian special forces and pro-Kremlin militias that threatened to scuttle the first international talks on the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
The clashes across the ex-Soviet state’s separatists eastern rust belt broke out a day after masked gunmen stormed a series of police and security service buildings in coordinated raids that Kiev blamed on the “provocative activities of Russian special services.”
The heavily Russified region has been riven by unrest since a team of Western-backed leaders rose to power in February on the back of bloody protests against the old regime’s decision to reject an EU alliance and look for future assistance from the Kremlin.
Russia has since massed about 40,000 soldiers along Ukraine’s eastern frontier and threatened to halt its neighbor’s gas supplies over unpaid bills — a cutoff that would impact at least 18 EU nations and threaten further retaliation against the Kremlin.
Saturday’s attacks were especially unsettling for both Kiev and Western leaders because of their remarkable similarity to events leading up to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula last month.
The balaclava-clad gunmen were armed with special-issue assault rifles and scopes most often used by nations’ crack security troops.
Many wore unmarked camouflage uniforms similar to those seen on the highly trained units that seized the Black Sea peninsula early last month. They also moved with military precision and cohesion.
However, Russia denied any involvement, and it sternly warned Kiev late on Saturday that the use of force against pro-Russian protesters could ruin the chances of the two sides sitting down for US-EU mediated talks in Geneva on Thursday.
Ukrainian Minister of the Interior Arsen Avakov announced the launch of an “anti-terrorist” operation in the eastern Donetsk region early yesterday morning.
Crack units from Ukraine’s SBU security service first attacked an occupied police station in the eastern city of Slavyansk that was seized by about 20 militants on Saturday.
However, Avakov said that his troops had to “regroup” after meeting stiff resistance and suffering casualties.
Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency cited one local protester as saying that a civilian had also been killed and two others injured.
The local administration separately reported a series of heavy clashes on a highway linking Slavyansk with the region’s capital Donetsk to the south.
The Donetsk administration said one person was killed and four wounded in an “ongoing armed standoff” on a stretch of the road connecting Slavyansk and the town of Artemivsk.
Meanwhile, Slavyansk residents reported a run on stores and general panic among locals in the poor mining town of 100,000 people.
The US Department of State said US Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov on Saturday to make “clear that if Russia did not take steps to de-escalate in eastern Ukraine and move its troops back from Ukraine’s border, there would be additional consequences.”