A pro-Russian protester stands at barricades at the police
headquarters in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk.
An agreement to avert wider conflict in Ukraine was
faltering on Monday, with pro-Moscow separatist gunmen showing
no sign of surrendering government buildings they have seized.
US and European officials say they will hold Moscow
responsible and impose new economic sanctions if the
separatists do not clear out of government buildings they
have occupied across swathes of eastern Ukraine over the past
US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Kiev, where he is
expected to announce a package of technical assistance. The
visit is likely to be more important as a symbol of support
than for any specific promises Biden makes in public.
"He will call for urgent implementation of the agreement
reached in Geneva last week while also making clear ... that
there will be mounting costs for Russia if they choose a
destabilising rather than constructive course in the days
ahead," a senior administration official told reporters.
Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States
signed off on the agreement in Geneva on Thursday designed to
lower tension in the worst confrontation between Russia and
the West since the Cold War. The agreement calls for occupied
buildings to be vacated under the auspices of envoys from the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
But no sooner had the accord been signed than both sides
accused the other of breaking it, while the pro-Moscow rebels
disavowed the pledge to withdraw from occupied buildings.
An OSCE mediator, Mark Etherington, held his first meeting
with the leader of separatists in Slaviansk, a town which
rebels have turned into a heavily-fortified redoubt.
Etherington said he had asked the pro-Russian self-proclaimed
"people's mayor" of the town, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, whether
he would comply with the Geneva agreement, but gave no hint
about the response.
Ponomaryov later told a news conference: "We did not
negotiate, we talked. We told them our position, what
happened here, and they told us about their plans."
Etherington said he had also asked about people being held in
Slaviansk, including the woman who was serving as mayor until
the uprising. Her fate has not been made clear.
In other signs the Geneva accord was far from being
implemented, activists in Slaviansk brought up trucks laden
with sand and were filling sandbags to reinforce their
barricades. In nearby Kramatorsk, local media showed masked
gunmen taking over the office of the SBU security service in
the town, and leading away a civilian identified as the local
Separatists told Reuters they would not disarm until Right
Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist group based in Western
Ukraine, did so first.
"Who should surrender weapons first? Let us see Right Sector
disarm first, let them make the first step and we will
follow," said Yevgeny Gordik, a member of a separatist
militia. "We need dialogue. This is not dialogue. It is
Russia says Right Sector members have threatened Russian
speakers. Kiev and Western countries say the threat is
largely invented by Russian state-run media to justify
Moscow's intervention and cause alarm in Russian speaking
Moscow blames Right Sector for a shooting on Easter Sunday
morning, when at least three people were killed at a
checkpoint manned by armed separatists. Right Sector denies
involvement, while Kiev said Russia provoked the violence.
US Secretary of State John Kerry urged his Russian
counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Monday to help implement the
Geneva deal, including by "publicly calling on separatists to
vacate illegal buildings and checkpoints", spokeswoman Jen
In its account of their telephone conversation, the Russian
Foreign Ministry said Lavrov had called on Kerry to
"influence Kiev, not let hotheads there provoke a bloody
conflict" and to encourage it "to fulfil its obligations
One European diplomat said the deal was a way for Russian
President Vladimir Putin to buy time and undermine momentum
towards tougher sanctions: "Talks and compromises are just
part of his tactics," said the diplomat. "He wants to have
The Slaviansk separatists released around a dozen Ukrainian
soldiers in blue uniforms on Monday, without making clear the
circumstances under which they had been held. Gordik said
armoured vehicles that were surrendered by a column of
Ukrainian paratroops last week would stay in the town.
Putin announced last month that Moscow has the right to
intervene in its neighbours to protect Russian speakers. He
then annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
Moscow has since massed tens of thousands of troops on the
Ukrainian border, and Kiev and its Western allies say Russian
agents are directing the uprising in the east, including the
"green men" - heavily armed, masked gunmen in unmarked
In his latest move, likely to be seen by the West as a
further threat to the post-Cold War order, Putin signed a law
on Monday making it easier for Russian speakers across the
former Soviet Union to obtain Russian citizenship.
Eastern Ukraine is largely Russian-speaking and many
residents are suspicious of the pro-European government that
took power in Kiev in February when Moscow-backed President
Viktor Yanukovich fled the country after mass protests.
Separatists have declared an independent "People's Republic
of Donetsk" in the east's biggest province and have named
themselves to official posts in towns and cities, setting up
checkpoints and flying Russian flags over government
There is also some support for Ukrainian unity in the region,
but pro-Kiev activists have had a lower profile since the
separatists took up arms.
One activist who helped organise a unity rally in Rubizhne, a
town in the eastern Luhansk region, told Ukraine's Channel 5
television that separatists attacked it, forcing the rally to
disperse. Local police said a policeman was hurt when
unidentified people tried to disrupt the rally.
In the regional capital Luhansk, Interfax-Ukraine news agency
said a meeting of about 3,000 people in the local SBU
headquarters had elected a "people's governor" and voted to
hold a two-stage referendum next month on union with Russia.
Ukraine announced an operation to retake rebel-held territory
earlier this month, but that modest effort largely collapsed
Kiev has declared an "Easter truce", though it is far from
clear it could muster any real force if it tried. The army is
ill-equipped, untested and untrained for domestic operations,
while the government in Kiev doubts the loyalty of the
The United States and EU have imposed visa bans and asset
freezes on some Russians over the annexation of Crimea,
measures explicitly designed not to have wider economic
impact and which have been mocked as pointless by Moscow.
Washington and Brussels both say they are working on tougher
measures they will impose unless Russia's allies in eastern
Ukraine back down, although building a consensus is tricky in
Europe where many countries rely on Russian energy exports.
The OSCE, a European security body that includes both NATO
members and Russia, has so far deployed around 100 monitors
and mediators in Ukraine and expects their number to rise.
An OSCE spokesman said the mediators were visiting
separatist-occupied buildings with copies of last week's
Geneva accord to explain it to the people inside.
"It's a mixed experience dealing with checkpoints and so
forth and there is a varying reaction to teams. There is a
hardened attitude in Donetsk or Slaviansk but some other
areas are more accommodating," spokesman Michael Bociurkiw
said. "When teams go to smaller centres people are more
willing to talk." (Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets,
Alastair Macdonald and Jeff Mason in Kiev, Dmitry Madorsky in
Slaviansk, Alissa de Carbonnel in Donetsk, Doina Chiacu in
Washington, Steve Gutterman and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow;
writing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher; editing by