Separatists in eastern Ukraine are calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to send "peacekeepers" after an Easter truce was shattered by a deadly gun battle Sunday.
Pro-Russian militiamen in the city of Slavyansk say one of their checkpoints came under attack by a convoy of gunmen in the early hours of Sunday morning. The ensuing firefight left at least three pro-Russian fighters dead, and a swirling mystery about who the attackers were.
The violence broke a holiday truce declared by the Ukrainian government, which had vowed an Easter weekend pause in its sputtering effort to oust the separatists who control government offices and police stations in nearly a dozen cities around the Donetsk region. It was the second outbreak of violence in four days. On Wednesday, three pro-Russian protesters were shot and killed as they tried to storm a Ukrainian military base in the port city of Mariupol.
The pro-Russian militiamen that control Slavyansk – under the flag of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic – claim the attackers were from the Ukrainian ultranationalist movement, Right Sector. The crucial piece of evidence pointing in that direction was a black-and-red business card bearing the name of Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh. The card was found – unblemished – by Russian media inside one of the attackers' burned-out and bullet-riddled cars. Also found were firearms, a stack of U.S. dollars, and aerial maps of Slavyansk.
The pro-Russian fighters claimed to have killed at least two members of the group that attacked them.
Following the violence, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, a rebel leader in Slavyansk, said he had appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to send "peacekeepers" to eastern Ukraine "to defend the population against the fascists." Mr. Ponomaryov declared an overnight curfew in Slavyansk.
The Russian foreign ministry also blamed Right Sector for the attack, and said it was proof of "the reluctance of the authorities in Kiev to bridle and disarm nationalists and extremists."
But, in a statement on its website, the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, suggested Russia was behind the shootout, which it called it a "cynical provocation" and an "externally staged attack." It said no group had been in the Slavyansk region except the pro-Russian separatists and Russian military intelligence, which Kiev accuses of helping foment the uprising.
Russia – furious over the pro-Western revolt that ousted the Kremlin-friendly government of Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year – is suspected of providing funds and military advisers to the Donetsk People's Republic and encouraging its demand to seek more autonomy from Kiev. Last month Moscow annexed the southern region of Crimea from Ukraine following a hotly disputed referendum there.
Right Sector claimed it had nothing to do with the shootout near Slavyansk. "This is all the Kremlin's blatant lies," Artem Skoropadskyy, a spokesman for the group, told Ukrainian television. "The Kremlin itself provoked a scuffle, the Kremlin itself staged an act of provocation and is once again attempting to blame the Right Sector for its unlawful actions."
The latest violence blows another hole in a diplomatic pact aimed at defusing the crisis that was signed Thursday in Geneva by diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union. A vaguely worded deal calls for "all illegal armed groups" in the country to be disarmed and to leave the buildings and streets they have occupied. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who have now arrived in the Donetsk, were supposed to oversee the pacification effort.
But the Geneva pact began to disintegrate almost as soon as it was signed, amid differing definitions of whom the deal was supposed to disarm.
Kiev and its allies in the West want Moscow to pressure the militants in eastern Ukraine to give up their weapons and leave the government buildings they have seized in the Donetsk region, as well as the nearby city of Lugansk. The protesters have refused to leave, and say they will stay until a planned referendum on May 11 that will ask area residents whether they want to stay in Ukraine, seek independence, or join Russia.
However, the Kremlin says the Ukrainian government must first crack down on armed Right Sector activists who helped oust Mr. Yanukovych and who remain camped on Kiev's central Independence Square two months later, vowing to stay there until national elections scheduled for May 25.
The tensions in Ukraine were underlined by the duelling messages given at Easter masses by the heads of the Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox churches.
Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church prayed for peace but said Ukraine was "spiritually and historically" linked with Russia, a theme Mr. Putin controversially raised this week, when he referred eastern Ukraine "Novorossiya," or "New Russia" in televised remarks. "We are a single people before God," Patriarch Kirill said in his recorded Easter message.
Meanwhile, Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church used his own Easter prayers to condemn "aggression" and "injustice" against Ukraine.
"A country which guaranteed the integrity and inviolability of our territory has committed aggression. God cannot be on the side of evil, so the enemy of the Ukrainian people is condemned to defeat," Patriatch Filaret said. "Lord, help us resurrect Ukraine."
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