Members of a Maidan self-defence unit walk past a burnt
building on Independence Square in Kiev. REUTERS/Valentyn
Ukrainian forces have aunched a "special operation"
against separatist militia in the Russian-speaking east,
authorities said, although aside from a landing by airborne
troops the action was limited.
Soldiers disembarked from two helicopters at an airfield at
Kramatorsk, where reporters earlier heard gunfire that seemed
to prevent an air force plane from landing. The troops
withdrew into barracks after local civilians manning a
barricade gave them a hostile reception when they tried to
leave the compound.
In Kiev, acting president Oleksander Turchinov declared a
much-needed victory over pro-Russian rebels by saying the air
base had been "liberated". But there was no sign of
A senior Ukrainian officer told the unarmed crowd that he had
come to direct an "anti-terrorist operation" that Turchinov
announced earlier in the day, after more than a week of
missed deadlines set by Kiev for armed pro-Moscow activists
to end occupations of public buildings in some 10 places in
But after a scuffle with some of the hundreds who chanted
hostility to the new Ukrainian authorities, some of them
holding Russian flags, the troops pulled back at dusk.
Ukraine's state security service said an "anti-terrorist"
operation was also in progress against separatists in the
nearby town of Slaviansk but there was no immediate evidence
Nonetheless, Kiev's stated resolve to challenge militants it
says are orchestrated by the Kremlin, marked an escalation of
the deepest East-West crisis since the Cold War.
The standoff has raised fears in the West and in Kiev that
Russia might intervene militarily to "protect" Russian
speakers in eastern Ukraine, following its annexation of the
Crimean region last month in response to the overthrow of
Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich following months of
The Russian foreign ministry said it was "deeply concerned"
by what it said were reports of casualties in eastern
Ukraine, though it was unclear where any such incidents had
A spokesman for US President Barack Obama said Ukraine's
government was obliged to respond to "provocations" in the
east but Washington was not considering sending arms to Kiev.
It was "seriously considering" adding to sanctions imposed
after the annexation of Crimea, the White House said,
although the State Department said such action was unlikely
before a meeting in Geneva on Thursday at which U.S., EU and
Ukrainian officials will try to persuade Russia to defuse the
The reports of military action in eastern Ukraine caused
Russian shares to fall sharply, with the main Moscow indices
down about three percent.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave a gloomy
assessment, apparently referring to the deaths of at least
two people on Sunday when Kiev unsuccessfully tried to regain
control in Slaviansk, 150 km from the Russian border.
"Blood has once again been spilt in Ukraine. The country is
on the brink of civil war," he said on his Facebook page.
President Vladimir Putin, who is seen by Western diplomats as
intent on reasserting Moscow's influence across what was the
Soviet Union and beyond, told U.N. Secretary General Ban
Ki-moon that Ukrainian actions in the east were
A Kremlin statement quoted him as saying he expected the U.N.
and world powers to issue a "clear condemnation" of Kiev.
Turchinov said an offensive he first announced on Sunday was
now in progress after days in which it failed to materialise.
"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," he told parliament. "I
stress again: the aim of these operations is to defend the
citizens of Ukraine."
At least 15 armoured personnel carriers displaying Ukrainian
flags were parked by the side of a road around 50 km (30
miles) north of Slaviansk, witnesses said.
Ukrainian troops wearing camouflage gear and armed with
automatic weapons and grenade-launchers were stationed
nearby, with a helicopter and several buses containing
interior ministry personnel near the road.
In Slaviansk itself, separatists have seized the local
headquarters of the police and state security service.
Outside the police station, about a dozen civilians manned
barricades of tyres and wooden crates. A dozen or so armed
Cossacks - paramilitary fighters who claim descent from
Tsarist-era patrolmen - stood guard at the mayor's offices.
Shops were functioning as usual and bread supplies were
In Kiev, a radical, pro-Russian candidate running for
Ukrainian presidential elections due next month was beaten up
by an angry crowd.
Moscow accuses Kiev of provoking the crisis by ignoring the
rights of citizens who use Russian as their first language,
and has promised to protect them from attack. Russia also
stresses the presence of far-right nationalists among Kiev's
However, a United Nations report on Tuesday cast doubt on
whether Russian-speakers were seriously threatened, including
those in Crimea who voted to join Russia after Moscow forces
had already seized control of the Black Sea peninsula.
"Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian
community, these were neither systematic nor widespread,"
said the report by the UN human rights office.
Russia called the report one-sided, politicised and
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen accused Moscow
of involvement in the rebellions. "It is very clear that
Russia's hand is deeply engaged in this," he told reporters.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Moscow was
stirring up the separatists in the east and southeast as a
possible prelude to repeating its annexation of Crimea.
"Ukraine is spreading lies that Russia is behind the actions
in the southeast," Lavrov said on a visit to China.
Moscow has demanded constitutional change in Ukraine to give
more powers to Russian-speaking areas, where most of the
country's heavy industry lies, while the rebels have demanded
Crimean-style referendums on secession in their regions.
Kiev opposes anything that might lead to the dismemberment of
the country. But in an attempt to undercut the rebels'
demands, Turchinov has held out the prospect of a nationwide
referendum on the future shape of the Ukrainian state.