Ukraine sends elite force to Odessa due to unrest

ODESSA, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine sent an elite national
guard unit to its southern port of Odessa, desperate to halt a spread of
the fighting between government troops and a pro-Russia militia in the
east that killed combatants on both sides Monday.
The government
in Kiev intensified its attempts to bring both regions back under its
control, but seemed particularly alarmed by the bloodshed in Odessa. It
had been largely peaceful until Friday, when clashes killed 46 people,
many of them in a government building that was set on fire.
The
tensions in Ukraine also raised concerns in neighboring Moldova, another
former Soviet republic, where the government said late Monday it had
put its borders on alert. Moldova’s breakaway Trans-Dniester region,
located just northwest of Odessa and home to 1,500 Russian troops, is
supported by Moscow, and many of its residents sympathize with the
pro-Russia insurgency.
The loss of Odessa — in addition to a swath
of industrial eastern Ukraine — would be catastrophic for the interim
government in Kiev, leaving the country cut off from the Black Sea.
Ukraine already lost a significant part of its coastline in March, when
its Crimean Peninsula was annexed by Russia.
Compared with eastern
Ukraine, Odessa is a wealthy city with an educated and ethnically
diverse population of more than 1 million. Jews still make up 12 percent
of the population of the city, which once had a large Jewish community.
"The
people of Odessa are well-educated and understand perfectly well that
Russia is sowing the seeds of civil war and destabilization in Ukraine,"
said Vladimir Kureichik, a 52-year-old literature teacher who left
Crimea after it became part of Russia.
The White House said it was "extremely concerned" by the violence in southern Ukraine.
"The
events in Odessa dramatically underscore the need for an immediate
de-escalation of tensions in Ukraine," said spokesman Jay Carney. He
suggested Russia still must follow through with its part of a diplomatic
deal aimed at defusing the tensions.
In eastern Ukraine, gunfire
and multiple explosions rang out in and around Slovyansk, a city of
125,000 in the Russian-speaking heartland that has become the focus of
the armed insurgency against the government in Kiev.
The Russian
Foreign Ministry put the blame squarely on Kiev, which "stubbornly
continues to wage war against the people of its own country." The
ministry urged what it called the "Kiev organizers of the terror" to
pull back the troops and hold peaceful negotiations to resolve the
crisis.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a
statement that government troops were battling about 800 pro-Russia
forces, which were deploying large-caliber weapons and mortars. His
ministry reported four officers killed and 30 wounded in the fighting.
The
pro-Russia militia said at least eight people, both militiamen and
local residents, were killed. A spokesman with the militia said that out
of 10 people admitted to a hospital in Slovyansk with gunshot wounds,
three later died. Five more were killed in fighting in the village of
Semenivka.
Both sides indicated fighting was taking place at
several sites. An Associated Press crew saw at least four ambulances
rushing wounded to a hospital in Slovyansk and one militiaman being
carried in for treatment.
This nation of 46 million is facing its
worst crisis in decades after its Moscow-leaning president, whose base
was in the east, fled to Russia in February following months of street
protests. Those eastern regions are now at odds with Ukraine’s western
and central areas, which seek closer ties with Europe and largely back
the government in Kiev.
The West has offered billions of dollars
in loans to help Kiev stave off economic collapse. Prime Minister
Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Ukraine expects to receive more than $5 billion
in May, according to a government statement Monday. This includes $3
billion from the International Monetary Fund, $1 billion from the U.S.
and up to 1 billion euros from the European Union.
The goal of the
pro-Russia insurgency is ostensibly to push for broader autonomy in the
east, but some do favor seceding from Ukraine and joining up with
Russia.
In recent weeks, pro-Russia forces have stormed and seized
government buildings and police stations in a dozen eastern cities.
Kiev accuses Moscow of backing the insurgents and fears Russia could use
the violence as a pretext to invade. Tens of thousands of Russian
troops have been deployed along Ukraine’s eastern border.
But even
as violence spread across the east, Odessa had been largely tranquil
until Friday, when pro-Ukrainian demonstrators fought back after being
attacked by pro-Russian groups.
"We feel ourselves to be residents
of a free city, Europeans," said Denis Sukhomlinsky, a 34-year-old
businessman who took part in the clashes. "We don’t need the Russian
iron hand or the dictatorship of (President Vladimir) Putin."
Pro-Russia
activists, however, echo Putin in describing the region as historically
part of Russia. Nearly 30 percent of Odessa’s residents identify
themselves as Russian.
"We will not become the slaves of NATO and the European Union, and will fight to the end," said
Vyacheslav Khrutsky, 45.
Pro-Russia
activists gathered at a funeral for a regional member of parliament,
Vyacheslav Markin, who died two days after the fire from his burns.
Markin was known for speaking out against the Kiev government.
Activists shouted "Hero! Hero!" and vowed to avenge him.
The
city remained calm, however, and Ukrainian flags flew all over the city
— unlike in the east, where pro-Moscow groups have replaced them with
the Russian tricolor.
The unrest in Odessa brought into question
the loyalty of its police force. On Sunday, pro-Russian demonstrators
stormed police headquarters and freed 67 people who had been detained in
the rioting. Riot police simply stood by and did not interfere.
Presumably
to prevent police from releasing more prisoners, the Interior Ministry
said Monday that 42 others were being sent to another region for
investigation.
The Interior Ministry also said it was sending an
elite national guard unit from Kiev to re-establish control in Odessa,
and the well-armed officers were seen on patrol.
On the outskirts
of Kiev, checkpoints were set up Monday to control movement into the
capital. Cars and buses with out-of-town license plates and other
suspicious vehicles were stopped for inspection by police, working with
the national guard and local volunteers.
Police Col. Serhiy Boiko
said they were looking for weapons and explosives, but also for printed
material that could be used to stir tensions.
The international
community has accused Russia of fomenting the unrest in an attempt to
destabilize Ukraine and derail the May 25 presidential elections.
On
Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry published a 70-page report listing
what it describes as human rights violations by "ultranationalist,
neo-Nazi and extremist forces" in Ukraine. The Kremlin wrote that the
ministry report "confirms that … violations of basic human rights in
Ukraine have become widespread."
While Putin has made no public
comment on Ukraine since the Odessa fire, several Russian politicians
have ramped up their anti-Ukraine rhetoric. Russian state media outlets
have referred to the fire as genocide.
Also Monday, Putin signed
into law legislation making it a crime to deny Nazi war crimes or spread
deliberately false information about the actions of the Soviet Union
during World War II. Those convicted could face up to five years in
prison.
The Kremlin has used national pride over the Soviet war
victory to consolidate Russian society behind Putin. These patriotic
feelings also have figured in a relentless Kremlin-driven propaganda
campaign to denigrate the Ukrainian authorities by describing them as
fascists and neo-Nazis.
Leaders in Moldova announced its borders
were on alert because of concerns about the violence in neighboring
Ukraine. President Nicolae Timofti, Prime Minister Iurie Leanca and
Parliament speaker Igor Coreman said in a statement that security forces
had been ordered "to take all necessary actions to ensure public order
inside the country."
They made no reference to any specific
threat, but "expressed their concern about the deterioration of the
security climate in the region following the escalation of violence in
Ukraine," it said, affirming support for Ukraine’s territorial
integrity.
Russia has said it respects Moldova’s territorial
integrity, but Moldovan leaders are concerned about unrest in
Trans-Dniester, a region controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Moldova
has a 1,220 kilometer border with Ukraine.
British Foreign
Minister William Hague held talks Monday with Moldovan authorities and
said the former Soviet republic should move forward with talks on closer
ties to the EU without being seen as a threat to Russia. Hague said
Britain is "strongly opposed to any external pressure or any violations
of sovereignty and territorial integrity."
___
Radovanovic
reported from Slovyansk, Ukraine. Corneliu Rusnac in Chisinau, Moldova,
and Laura Mills and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed reporting.
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