World Bulletin / News Desk
Ukrainian forces said they had killed several pro-Russian militants in clashes as they closed in on the separatist-held city of Slaviansk on Thursday, seizing rebel checkpoints and setting up roadblocks as helicopters circled overhead.
Reuters journalists saw a Ukrainian detachment with five armoured personnel carriers take over a checkpoint on a road north of the city in late morning after it was abandoned by separatists who set tyres alight to cover their retreat.
However, two hours later the troops pulled back. Local militia moved in and began reinforcing the position with sandbags. It was unclear why the military had withdrawn.
A separatist spokeswoman in Slaviansk said early in the morning that two fighters had been killed in a clash in the same area, near a road leading to the town of Sviatogorsk.
It was unclear if Ukrainian troops were preparing to risk storming Slaviansk, a city of 130,000 that has become the military stronghold of a movement seeking annexation by Moscow of the Russian-speaking, industrial regions of eastern Ukraine.
For the past few weeks, they have held back from combat, saying they were concerned about civilian casualties - and about provoking reprisals from Russia, which does not recognise the new Ukrainian government and has warned that it would move to protect Russian-speakers in the east, as it did in Crimea.
The troops could be planning to impose a cordon around the city to disrupt militants' contacts with the rest of the region and to promote surrender negotiations that have been begun by European OSCE monitors following an international accord signed by Russia and Ukraine's Western allies a week ago in Geneva.
Slaviansk separatist mayor Vyacheslav Ponomaryov was quoted by local online site slavgorod.com.ua saying: "If they break into the city, we are ready for them." His men have machineguns, grenade-launchers and at least one self-propelled artillery gun.
The soldiers seen taking the checkpoint near the village of Khrestyshche had arrived from the direction of Sviatogorsk. They appeared disciplined and well-armed, wearing camouflage with black body armour and black helmets with riot visors.
To the south of Slaviansk, Reuters saw dozens of Ukrainian airborne troops with armoured assault vehicles digging in in mid-morning and manning a checkpoint on the main road to the regional capital, Donetsk.
At Artemivsk, on the same road, the Defence Ministry said troops repelled an overnight attack on their base by a group of about 100 militants using machineguns and grenades. One soldier was wounded, it added. The Interior Ministry said the raid was led by Russian troops. Moscow denies having forces in Ukraine.
U.S. TROOPS ARRIVE IN POLAND
So far, the United States and EU have imposed visa bans and asset freezes on a few Russians in protest at Moscow's annexation last month of Crimea from Ukraine.
In NATO member Poland, the first group of a contingent of around 600 U.S. soldiers arrived on Wednesday. They are part of an effort by Washington to reassure eastern European allies who are worried by the build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine's borders.
Earlier on Thursday, Kiev forces with five light armoured vehicles took control of a checkpoint north of Slaviansk after separatists appeared to abandon the position, Reuters journalists said from the scene.
The government said the city hall in another eastern town, Mariupol, which had been seized by separatists, was now back under central control. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the mayor was back in his office.
"In this instance there were no casualties ... The process of getting the situation back to normal in the city will continue," he said in a post on his Facebook page.
Kiev also reported a shootout overnight in another part of the east when a Ukrainian soldier was wounded, while pro-Russian separatists in Slaviansk were holding three journalists, including U.S. citizen Simon Ostrovsky.
Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, slid into unrest late last year when Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich rejected a pact to build closer ties with Europe. Protesters took over central Kiev and he fled in February.
Days later, Russian troops seized control of Crimea. Moscow then annexed the region, saying it was protecting Russian residents, while the West called the action a land grab.
The focus has now shifted to eastern Ukraine, the industrial heartland and home to a large Russian-speaking community.
NO WAY BACK?
With rhetoric building from the United States about the imposition of a new, tougher round of sanctions, Russia suggested on Thursday that Western firms which pulled out of the country may not be able to get back in.
"It is obvious that they won't return in the near future if they sever investment agreements with us, I mean there are consequences as well," Natural Resources Minister Sergei Donskoy told reporters.
"Russia is one of the most promising countries in terms of hydrocarbons production. If some contracts are severed here, then, colleagues, you lose a serious lump of your future pie," the minister added.
However, Western oil majors BP and Royal Dutch Shell were sticking with their projects in Russia, he noted.
Supplies of Russian gas to Europe are also, potentially, at risk from the crisis over Ukraine. Moscow has threatened to cut Kiev off unless it pays off its debts, and drastically raised this bill this week.
State-controlled Gazprom sent Ukrainian energy firm Naftogaz an additional bill on Wednesday of $11.4 billion, more than five times its previous claim, a source at the company said. This was in addition to the $2.2 billion that Naftogaz already owes for supplies in 2013 and 2014 so far.
Moscow nearly doubled the gas price for Ukraine from April but Kiev, which is in financial trouble, is refusing to pay.
If Moscow cuts off the flow to Kiev, this would have a knock-on effect on European customers further West, because many of the pipelines that deliver their gas run through Ukraine.
European and Ukrainian officials were to meet in Slovakia, which borders Ukraine, on Thursday to try to work out ways to mitigate the impact if Ukraine is cut off.
The options include reversing the usual east-west flow of the pipelines to Europe to pump gas back into Ukraine, but the volumes that could be supplied this way would be only a small fraction of the amount that Ukraine needs.
Unarmed mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are in eastern Ukraine trying to persuade pro-Russian gunmen to go home, in line with the Geneva accord.
Reuters reporters have not been able to establish that any Russian troops or special forces members are in the region, though Kiev and Western powers say they have growing evidence that Moscow has a covert presence.
Putin has described as "nonsense" allegations that Moscow has its forces in eastern Ukraine. It says the unrest is a spontaneous protest by local people who fear persecution from the government in Kiev which it says is illegitimate and has far-right links.Last Mod: 24 Nisan 2014, 15:32