Harriet Salem in Donetsk -
Following an escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine over the past few days despite the four-way Geneva agreement reached between Russia, Ukraine, the US and EU, acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchynov said late April 22 that the government will re-launch its anti-terror operation in the region.
Heavily armed pro-Russian militia are still holding Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, despite the April 17 deal that stipulated an immediate end to violence and the seizures. Both cities have been encircled by separatist-controlled road blockades for more than a week. In several other cities in Ukraine’s east and southeast, including Lukhansk and Horlivka, the separatists control state administration and security services buildings.
According to Ukraine’s defence ministry on April 22, a military surveillance plane was hit and damaged by gunfire as it flew over rebel-controlled Sloviansk. A ministry spokesperson told AFP that the propeller-driven Antonov An-30 aircraft had made a safe emergency landing.
The attack came just hours after US Vice President Joe Biden visited Kyiv and warned Russia that “time was short” to see the Geneva pact being met. Biden, the highest level official to visit Ukraine since crisis began in February when former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country after his troops fired on pro-EU protestors in Kyiv, also pledged an additional $50m in financial aid to the fledgling government. “You will not walk this road alone,” Biden told the Ukrainian authorities. “We will walk it with you.”
The US is also deploying about 600 troops to Poland and the Baltic countries, it was announced on April 22.
Ukraine’s southeast has descended into violent thuggery and lawlessness as the local militia have attempted to strengthen their control over the region. A mysterious shootout on Easter Sunday in Sloviansk left two rebels dead and two more seriously injured. It is unclear who the perpetrators were. Local militia and Russia are pointing the finger at Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector, whilst the administration in Kyiv have blamed outside provocateurs.
On April 22, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry identified Volodymyr Rybak, a local party official of Batkivshchyna (All-Ukrainian Union "Fatherland") from Horlivka, as one of the two dead bodies found on April 19 in a river near Sloviansk. According to Serhiy Redko, first deputy of the Interior Ministry’s criminal investigation department, he had suffered “combined injuries due to torture and death by drowning while unconscious”. Rybak was vocal in support for a united Ukraine and disappeared after he attended a rally in Horlivka where he reportedly called for the separatists' so-called "Donetsk People's Republic" flag to be removed from the local legislative building.
Late on April 22 the so-called “people’s mayor” of Sloviansk, Viacheslav Ponomarev, confirmed the extremely troubling news that journalist Simon Ostrovsky, working for US publication Vice, had been “captured” by the pro-Russian rebels. He is being held on charges of provocation, though the nature of this alleged offence has not yet been released. Ostrovsky has produced some of the best frontline footage of the Ukraine crisis in Crimea and the country’s southeast.
Worryingly, Ponomarev also stated that his men held up to eight more prisoners. One of these is Euromaidan sympathiser and journalist Irma Krat, who says she travelled to east Ukraine to report on the crisis. The identity of the other six is not clear. The conditions in which the hostages are being held is not known. There are reports that lists of "anti-Russian" journalists have been compiled by the militia. At least three journalists working in the region have been subject to smear campaigns by pro-Russian groupsd on social network sites.
The pro-Russian separatists, led by Ponomarev, say they have imposed martial law in Sloviansk, which they claim is under threat of “imminent attack” and in a “state of war and emergency”. The rebels’ local government have imposed a dry law, banning the sale of alcohol after 20:00 on local citizens, who are prohibited from leaving their houses between 00:00 and 06:00.
Outside the militia-controlled hotspots, most of the southeast of Ukraine remains calm, for now. But the fear is that Russia will continue to augment unrest in the country’s southeast either to create a pretext to invade, or to invalidate the presidential elections scheduled for May 15. In echoes of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March, there is growing evidence that Russian special forces are operating in the region. According to Nato sources around 40,000 Russian troops have been massed on Ukraine’s eastern border for at least two months.
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