KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian insurgents stormed a post on the border with Russia to free a rebel leader detained by frontier guards as the central government convened a national unity round-table without the separatists present.
About 200 fighters attacked the Dovzhanskyi border station, freeing Luhansk insurgent leader Valeriy Bolotov, who’d been detained crossing from Russia with two other men, Ukraine’s border service said on its website.
The strike came hours before Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk met with national and regional political leaders and businessmen to discuss a way to reunify the country.
“Those who shoot at people do not want peace; there will be no talks with terrorists,” Yatsenyuk said in televised remarks from the eastern city of Kharkiv. “The right to go to a church of one’s choice, speak the language of one’s choice and to express one’s political position have been protected. This is the way to unify the country.”
The round-table comes as fighting escalates in Ukraine’s eastern regions and follows unofficial referendums on secession last weekend in Donetsk and Luhansk, where rebels have declared independence. The violence is threatening to disrupt Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election, which the U.S., European Union and NATO say is being undermined by Russian intervention.
The government in Kiev and its allies in the U.S. and EU rejected the referendums, saying they were illegal, and accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of stirring unrest after annexing Crimea in March. NATO says Putin still has 40,000 troops arrayed on Ukraine’s border and hasn’t fulfilled promises to pull them back.
“We want Russia to respect its international obligations and stop trying to destabilize the situation,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, told reporters in Bucharest yesterday.
The U.S. and the U.K. have imposed sanctions on Russian companies and people in Putin’s inner circle and vowed to tighten them further if he doesn’t back down.
In a phone call Friday, President Barack Obama and his French counterpart Francois Hollande “underscored that Russia will face significant additional costs if it continues its provocative and destabilizing behavior,” the U.S. White House said in a statement.
While Russia’s parliament has given Putin a green light to use his forces abroad to protect Russian speakers, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that Russia won’t send troops into eastern Ukraine and isn’t trying to foment separatist sentiment there.
“A real threat to the lives of civilians has been created,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement today. “We again insist that Kiev immediately halt military action in the southeast of Ukraine.”
Russia has objected to the plan to hold Ukrainian elections amid the current unrest, though it has softened its opposition in recent weeks. Lavrov signaled that Russia views Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire frontrunner in the vote, as someone it can do business with.
Separatists named Alexander Boroday as prime minister of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” Friday, spokesman Dmitry Gau said by phone. Earlier this week, pro-Russian activists in Luhansk and Donetsk agreed to join forces to confront the central government.
The separatists hold buildings and radio and television towers in about 15 cities in in area that extends from Russia’s border to about 120 miles into Ukraine. They’ve adopted a constitution establishing the break-away state’s borders as those of the two Ukrainian regions and declaring that they can accede to a different nation. Boroday said Ukraine’s presidential ballot won’t take place there.
“As long as our territory is occupied, there will be no talks with Kiev,” Boroday said today, according to Interfax. “When the last armed man leaves our territory, then, maybe, we will receive some mediators.”
In a report this week, United Nations monitors criticized “repeated acts of violence” against protesters, mainly those in favor of Ukraine’s unity, as well as “targeted killings, torture and beatings, abductions, intimidation and some cases of sexual harassment – mostly carried out by well-organized and well-armed anti-government groups in the east.”
Ukraine says the military operation will stop once separatist groups surrender their weapons and release hostages. Its armed forces surrounded the city of Slovyansk, the site of some of the most intense fighting, the Defense Ministry said in a statement on its website today.
Separatists are firing on government units from residential areas, and the insurgents remain in control of the city council, police stations, the court and other buildings and have created dozens of road blocks, the ministry said.
One civilian was killed and another wounded when unknown assailants shot at their car near Luhansk, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
In the Black Sea port city of Mariupol, rebels and police agreed to end fighting under an deal brokered by Metinvest Holding LLC two days ago. More than 32,000 people have volunteered to patrol the streets and remove separatist barricades, the company said in an e-mail yesterday. Metinvest, controlled by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, runs iron and steel plants in Mariupol.
“The people who are signing up say that they do not need gunfire, they do not need war, they want to protect their town from criminals,” the head of Metinvest’s MMK Illyich plant, Yurii Zinchenko, said in the e-mail.
A study by the Pew Research Center last month found that 70 percent of respondents in eastern Ukraine wanted the country to remain unified and keep its current borders. In the west of Ukraine, it was 93 percent, the April 5-23 poll of 1,659 people showed. It gave no margin of error.
In an echo of comments earlier this week that sparked concern in the EU that he was giving ammunition to Russian ambitions in Ukraine, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said his country would put its “full weight” behind a shift to autonomy for Ukraine’s ethnic-Hungarian population.
“Ukraine can be neither stable nor democratic if it doesn’t provide its minorities what they deserve,” Orban said in an interview on public TV. “That’s dual citizenship, community rights and autonomy.”
Orban made similar comments a week ago, prompting Ukraine to summon Hungary’s ambassador in Kiev for an explanation. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, one of Orban’s strongest EU allies, said the comments were “out of place and time” when “we’re witnessing attempts to tear Ukraine apart.”
Orban also said Hungary had negotiated a deal with Russian monopoly gas exporter OAO Gazprom to ensure energy security in case of a cutoff in gas supplies from Russia to Europe. He said Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s borders is a “different issue” and Hungary backed Ukraine on the matter.
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