Ukraine tension turns deadly in ‘worst case scenario’

Bloomberg reports: Ukrainian security forces battled pro-Russian gunmen in the eastern town of Slovyansk, with both sides suffering casualties, in what European Union member Poland called “the worst-case scenario” for the country.

A day after Ukrainian officials accused Russia of “external aggression,” camouflaged gunmen fired on units deployed by the government in Kiev in an anti-terror operation near Slovyansk, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) from the Russian frontier, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said today on Facebook. One serviceman was killed and five were wounded, with an unknown number of dead on the separatist side, he said.

It followed the takeover of a regional police station in Donetsk yesterday and gun battles in which police stopped separatists from seizing buildings in other towns. The events echoed those that preceded Russia’s annexation of Crimea, rattling Ukraine’s industrial heartland and raising concern that Russia may carve off more of Ukraine with what NATO has estimated are 40,000 combat-ready troops massed on the border.

“Over the past few hours we’ve witnessed the worst-case scenario playing out in Ukraine,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who has advocated a strong response to Russia, said in an interview with Radio Zet in Warsaw.

The anti-terror operation began after acting President Oleksandr Turchynov called an emergency meeting of the country’s National Defense and Security Council last night.

“Please let all civilians know to vacate the center of town, to not leave their apartments and to stay away from windows,” Avakov posted on his Facebook account. “Separatists have opened fire on approaching special-forces units.”

One person was killed an nine were wounded, news service Interfax reported, without giving details on which side the casualties came from. Russian state-run Rossiya 24 TV said Ukrainian “self-defense” forces led by an Afghan War veteran had spread across Slovyansk and troops allied to the government in Kiev arrived in armored personnel carriers and by helicopter.

Intelligence reports from the U.S. and its allies indicate that some of the pro-Russian demonstrators infiltrated cities in eastern and southern Ukraine during the past month or even earlier as part of a Russian plan to divide Ukraine into federated regions, some of which may hold referendums to rejoin Russia, as Crimea did, two U.S. officials said.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the reports, which they stressed aren’t conclusive, the officials said that the assessment continues to be that Russian President Vladimir Putin prefers using a campaign of provocation, propaganda, bribery and subversion — rather than an outright invasion by Russian troops — to take over some of parts of eastern and southern Ukraine. [Continue reading…]

The Wall Street Journal reports: Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said the appearance of heavily armed men in unmarked uniforms drew alarming parallels to the takeover of Crimea by Russian troops last month ahead of a referendum for the region to secede from Ukraine and Russia’s annexing the territory.

“The reappearance of men with specialized Russian weapons and identical uniforms without insignia, as previously worn by Russian troops during Russia’s illegal and illegitimate seizure of Crimea, is a grave development,” he said. “I call on Russia to de-escalate the crisis and pull back its large number of troops, including special forces, from the area around Ukraine’s border.”

On Saturday, the White House said it warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against using the clashes in Ukraine’s east as a pretext for seizing more territory. Moscow says it reserves the right to send troops into eastern Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians there from an alleged threat of violence against them from nationalists in the Ukrainian government, although Russia has presented little concrete evidence such a threat exists. [Continue reading…]

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