Ukraine on brink as troops hit separatists
UKRAINE was on the verge of civil war last night as the government launched an "anti-terrorist operation" against pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.
In the first sign of a fightback against militias that have seized key buildings in a dozen eastern towns and cities, Kiev deployed special forces, combat aircraft and heavy armour to the area.
Russian state media claimed that up to 11 people had been killed during an attack on an airbase in Kramatorsk, but there was no confirmation of casualties.
The "anti-terrorist operation" ordered by Oleksandr Tuchynov, Ukraine's acting president, was first seen on the highway leading to the separatist-controlled town of Slaviansk yesterday morning.
A mixed force, including police, airborne troops and Ukrainian SBU special forces, set up a checkpoint on the road to the south of the city of Izyum.
They were backed by a dozen armoured personnel carriers flying Ukrainian flags.
Meanwhile, at Kramatorsk, 10 miles south, casualties were reported as Ukrainian helicopter gunships attempted to relieve troops besieged at an airfield by a hostile pro-Russian crowd. Heavy gunfire was heard.
"The base is under our control. We saw off an attack," said one Ukrainian soldier, shortly after the helicopters landed and a circling fighter jet withdrew.
However, pro-Russian protesters, who have maintained a blockade outside the gates of the airfield for several days, claimed that Ukrainian troops opened fire unprovoked on civilians.
Neither version of events could be immediately confirmed, nor could the Russian claims of fatalities. While soldiers fired warning shots when members of the crowd crossed the perimeter fence, it was not clear if either side had suffered casualties.
The government in Kiev has come under increasing criticism for failing to act decisively against the separatist movement, which wants a referendum on secession from Ukraine and unification with Russia – the same process followed in Crimea last month.
At the airfield yesterday, Gen Vasily Krutov, the commander of the force sent by Kiev, was mobbed by an angry crowd when he tried to speak to the protesters outside the gates.
Speaking earlier in the day, Gen Krutov said he had been sent to weed out "combat separatists who are clearly serving the interests of a neighbouring state".
He said the operation would be "extremely difficult because of the professionalism of the enemy and the presence of civilians amongst the separatists".
As proof of his warning, details emerged last night of how a previous Ukrainian military force that tried to push into Slaviansk on Sunday was turned back after a firefight at a roadblock set up by separatists.
Two paratroopers who witnessed the fight said the column had been ambushed from both sides by men using automatic weapons and grenades.
"We were ambushed," said one paratrooper yesterday. "They killed one of the Alfa [special forces] men. We've been told by our officers that there is a real chance we may be going into battle."
The clashes come ahead of talks in Geneva tomorrow between Moscow and Kiev aimed at defusing the crisis.
Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, criticised Ukraine's government – which is not recognised by Moscow – for launching the military operation, saying it would lead to "terrible turmoil".
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, called for the United Nations to condemn Kiev's actions, the Kremlin said.
But the White House said that Ukraine faced an "untenable" situation and described its military operation against pro-Russia militants as "measured".
Jay Carney, White House spokesman, urged restraint and "all due caution" while adding that the Ukrainian government had a "responsibility" to safeguard law and order.
The prospect of further sanctions was also raised by the US with John Kerry, the secretary of state, saying that Washington was coordinating "additional steps" with its European allies following a phone call with his French, German and British counterparts.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato's secretary-general, accused Russia of directly stoking the violence.
"We never . . . comment on intelligence, but I think from what is visible, it is very clear that Russia's hand is deeply engaged in this," he said.
Amid fears that the fighting could push Ukraine and Russia into full-scale hostilities, William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, accused Moscow of "deliberately" stirring the confrontation. He warned that it would damage relations for at least a decade.
"In recent days, Russia has deliberately pushed Ukraine to the brink, and created a still greater risk of violent confrontation," he said. "Russia must choose whether it is open to diplomacy and de-escalation, and if it decides otherwise, we must be ready for a different state of relations with Russia in the next 10 years than in the last 20."
A UN inquiry said it had found no evidence of widespread attacks on Russians in Ukraine, a claim used by Moscow last month to justify its annexation of Crimea.
"We do not have any credible evidence of issues that would justify concerns on the part of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine," said Gianni Magazzeni, a senior UN human rights official.
Gen Krutov pledged no mercy for the separatists, who are widely thought to have Russian soldiers in their midst.
"They must be warned that if they do not lay down their arms, they will be destroyed," he said. He insisted that the militants had been reinforced by several hundred soldiers from the Russian army's Main Intelligence Directorate.
Yesterday's rapid turn of events were preceded by a telephone conversation on Monday between Mr Putin and President Barack Obama that was described as "frank and direct".
The call, though, appeared to break no new ground. (© Daily Telegraph, London)