Pro-Russian supporters attend a rally in front of the security service building occupied by Pro-Russian activists in Lugansk, Ukraine
Russia has declared Ukraine on the brink of civil war as Kiev said an “anti-terrorist operation” against pro-Russia separatists was under way.
However, the crackdown appeared to get off to a slow start, if at all.
24 hours after an Ukrainian ultimatum expired for the separatists to lay down their arms, witnesses reported no signs yet that Kiev forces were ready to storm state buildings in the Russian-speaking east that the rebels have occupied.
Interim president Oleksander Turchinov insisted the operation had started in the eastern Donetsk region, although it would happen in stages and “in a considered way”.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian police have said that pro-Russian separatists have voluntarily surrendered the police headquarters in the city of Kramatorsk, which was taken by armed militants on Saturday.
“They left of their own accord,” Igor Dyomin, a spokesman for the Donetsk region police, told Reuters.
Deepest East-West crisis since the Cold War
Amidst the deepest East-West crisis since the Cold War, the leaders of Russia and the United States called on each other to do all in their power to avoid further bloodshed.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave a gloomy assessment after at least two people died on Sunday when Kiev unsuccessfully tried to regain control in Slaviansk, one of about ten towns and cities where the separatists have seized buildings.
“Blood has once again been spilt in Ukraine. The country is on the brink of civil war,” he said in a statement posted on his Facebook page.
Ukraine has accused Russia of stirring up the separatists following its annexation of Crimea.
While Moscow says Kiev has provoked the crisis by ignoring the interests of its citizens who use Russian as their first language.
Mr Turchinov said the offensive, which he first announced on Sunday, was finally underway.
“The anti-terrorist operation began during the night in the north of Donetsk region.
“But it will take place in stages, responsibly, in a considered way. I once again stress: the aim of these operations is to defend the citizens of Ukraine,” he told parliament.
Western officials have drawn parallels between events in the east of Ukraine and what happened in Crimea, which Russian troops seized in February before the formal annexation.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he welcomed signs that the government in Kiev was ready for dialogue with the separatists, Interfax news agency reported.
Speaking during a visit to Beijing, Mr Lavrov said Kiev’s apparent willingness to “resolve through negotiations all the problems relating to the legal demands of the inhabitants of the south-east regions of Ukraine, is certainly a step in the right direction, albeit very belated”.
US President Barack Obama criticised Russia in a telephone call with President Vladimir Putin yesterday, saying its actions were not conducive to a diplomatic solution.
“The president emphasised that all irregular forces in the country need to lay down their arms.
“He urged President Putin to use his influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to depart the buildings they have seized,” the White House said in a statement.
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