A monk blesses a Pro-Russian activist outside a regional
government building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels as
they closed in on the separatists' military stronghold in the
east, and Russia launched army drills near the border in
response, raising fears its troops would invade.
The Ukrainian offensive amounts to the first time Kiev's
troops have used lethal force to recapture territory from the
fighters, who have seized swathes of eastern Ukraine since
April 6 and proclaimed an independent "People's Republic of
Ukraine's acting president accused Moscow of supporting
"terrorism at the state level" against his country for
backing the rebels, who the government blames for kidnapping
and torturing a politician found dead on Saturday.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said its forces backed by the
army had removed three checkpoints manned by armed groups in
the separatist-controlled city of Slaviansk.
"During the armed clash up to five terrorists were
eliminated," it said in a statement, adding that one person
had been wounded on the side of the government forces.
A rebel spokeswoman in Slaviansk said two fighters had died
in a clash in the same area, northeast of the city centre.
Slaviansk's separatist self-proclaimed mayor, Vyacheslav
Ponomaryov, quoted on a local news site, said one man was
shot dead and another badly wounded on the northeastern
outskirts of the city. He said the dead had been unarmed.
The Kremlin, which says it has the right to invade its
neighbour to protect Russian speakers, has built up forces on
Ukraine's border - estimated by NATO at up to 40,000 troops.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Moscow had launched
military drills near the border in response to "Ukraine's
military machine" and NATO exercises in eastern Europe. Kiev
demanded an explanation within 48 hours of action on the
Russia already seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula from
Ukraine last month after President Vladimir Putin overturned
decades of post-Cold War diplomacy by announcing the right to
use military force in neighbouring countries.
An invasion of mainland Ukraine's industrial heartland would
be a far more serious action. It had seemed beyond
contemplation only weeks ago but now looks like a real
threat, although the full extent of Putin's territorial
ambitions remains a mystery.
In St Petersburg, Putin said that if the authorities in Kiev
had used the army in eastern Ukraine, it would be a very
serious crime against their own people.
"It is just a punitive operation and it will of course incur
consequences for the people making these decisions, including
(an effect) on our interstate relations," Putin said in a
televised meeting with regional media.
Washington criticised the Russian drills on the frontier. It
was "exactly the opposite of what we have been calling on the
Russians to do, which is to de-escalate the situation,"
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said.
Russia's Foreign Ministry responded that it was up to
Washington to halt the Ukrainian military action, and "force
the Kiev authorities, who are wards of the United States, to
restrain themselves and not use force."
Reuters journalists saw a Ukrainian detachment with five
armoured personnel carriers take over a checkpoint on a road
north of Slaviansk in the late morning after it was abandoned
by separatists who set tyres alight to cover their retreat.
However, two hours later the troops pulled back and it was
unclear if Kiev would risk storming Slaviansk, a city of
130,000 that has become the military stronghold of a movement
seeking annexation by Moscow of Ukraine's industrialised
At another checkpoint set up by the Ukrainian military, a
soldier said they were there to instil law and order.
"Those separatists, they violated the constitution, they are
torturing the country, they violated laws, they do not
recognise the authority of police, so the army had to move in
and we will finish what we have started so help me God," he
Under an accord signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United States
and European Union in Geneva last week, illegal armed groups
are supposed to disarm and go home, including the rebels
occupying about a dozen buildings in the largely
However, the rebels have shown no sign of retreating. U.S.
President Barack Obama blamed Russia for failing to carry out
the Geneva deal and said he was ready to impose new
Putin said sanctions were "dishonourable" and destroyed the
global economy but that so far the damage had not been
Moscow also flexed its economic muscles, with the government
suggesting foreign firms which pull out of the country may
not be able to get back in. A source at Gazprom said the
Russian exporter had slapped an additional $11.4 billion bill
on Kiev. Ukraine is negotiating to reverse east-west
pipelines so that it can receive gas from Europe if Moscow
cuts it off.
Washington accuses Moscow of sending agents to coordinate the
unrest in the east, as it did before seizing Crimea last
month. Russia denies it is behind the uprising and says the
separatists are responding spontaneously to hostility from
Kiev. Russia made similar denials over Crimea until Putin
acknowledged last week his troops had indeed acted alongside
"At the state level, Russia is supporting terrorism in our
country," Ukraine's acting President Oleksander Turchinov
said in an address to the nation on Thursday. "Armed
criminals have taken over buildings, are taking citizens,
Ukrainian and foreign journalists, hostage and murdering
Turchinov called for the eastern offensive this week after
the apparent torture and murder of a pro-Kiev town councilor
whose body was found on Saturday near Slaviansk.
Volodymyr Rybak had disappeared after being filmed trying to
take down a separatist flag while trying to enter the
rebel-held town hall where he worked in Horlivka, a town near
"He was bruised and punctured from head to toe...it's clear
they tortured him," said Aleksander Yaroshenko, a family
friend who accompanied Rybak's widow when she identified his
body at the morgue. "The police have lots of details, they
have CCTV footage, they should know who did this," he told
Rebels in Slaviansk released U.S. citizen Simon Ostrovsky,
one of three journalists they are believed to be holding.
Moscow called for Kiev to release "political prisoners",
including a pro-Russian activist named Pavel Gubarev.
So far, the United States and EU have taken only mild action
against Moscow, imposing visa bans and asset freezes on a few
Russians, measures Moscow has scoffed at as meaningless.
Washington and Brussels both say they are drafting more
serious sanctions and will impose them if the Geneva deal
Even without serious sanctions, Russia's confrontation with
the West has hurt its economy as fearful investors send their
money abroad. Mutual funds specialising in Russia and Eastern
Europe were the 30 worst performers out of 3,489 equity funds
for sale in Britain in the three months ending in March.
In NATO member Poland, the first group of a contingent of
around 600 U.S. soldiers arrived on Wednesday, part of an
effort by Washington to reassure eastern European allies who
are worried by the Russian build-up near Ukraine's borders.
However, NATO and the United States have made clear they will
not use military force to protect Ukraine itself.
Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, said aircraft would fly
increased patrols near the Ukrainian frontier as part of the
new exercises. Two local residents in the area told Reuters
they had seen attack helicopters flying in formation.
Kiev said the city hall in another eastern town, Mariupol,
which had been seized, was back under central control. A
separatist crowd later surrounded the building, patrolled by
police but otherwise apparently empty.
Kiev also reported a shootout overnight in another part of
the east where a Ukrainian soldier was wounded.
Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, slid into unrest late last
year when Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich rejected
a pact to build closer ties with Europe. Protesters took over
central Kiev and he fled in February. Days later, Russian
troops seized control of Crimea.
The Ukrainian defence ministry confirmed its involvement in
the operation around Slaviansk on Thursday, saying the troops
involved were airborne units with experience of such tasks
from international peacekeeping missions.
"The morale of our forces will allow them to completely
fulfil their task of defending Ukraine," it said.
Unarmed mediators from the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe are in eastern Ukraine trying to
persuade pro-Russian gunmen to go home, in line with the
Reuters reporters have not been able to establish that any
Russian troops or special forces members are on the ground,
though Kiev and Western powers say they have growing evidence
that Moscow has a presence. Masked gunmen in the east, widely
referred to as "green men", wear uniforms without insignia.
Kiev has been cautious in taking action for fear of
triggering a Russian invasion. Last week it ordered an
"anti-terrorist operation", but this quickly fizzled out when
an armoured column of paratroopers surrendered weapons to a
separatist crowd. (Additional reporting by Alexander
Reshetnikov and Gleb Garanich near Slaviansk; Alissa de
Carbonnel in Donetsk; Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Richard
Balmforth and Alastair Macdonald in Kiev, Denis Dyomkin in
Birobidzhan, Russia, Mark Felsenthal in Tokyo, Alessandra
Prentice and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by
Christian Lowe, David Stamp, Philippa Fletcher and Peter