Men wearing black and orange ribbons of St. George, a
symbol widely associated with pro-Russian protests in
Ukraine, clean their weapons at a checkpoint in Slaviansk,
eastern Ukraine. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev
Armed pro-Russian separatists and a Ukrainian militia
group have clashed in the east of Ukraine, leaving at least two
dead and heightening tension before a presidential election
called to draw a line under six months of bloody upheaval.
Kiev's pro-Western leaders hope Sunday's poll will stabilise
the former Soviet republic after street protests toppled
Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich and pro-Russian
separatists responded by seizing Crimea and parts of eastern
European leaders will consider steps against Russia on
Tuesday if they decide Moscow has hampered the election,
ranging from restrictions on luxury goods imports to an oil
and gas ban, although some are wary due to close trade ties.
The Ukrainian authorities have promised a suspension of
anti-separatist operations on the day of the election, billed
as the most important in 23 years of independence from
Moscow, but Friday's clash suggested violence may mar the
A Reuters correspondent saw two dead bodies after the three-
hour fire-fight in the morning between Ukrainian self-defence
fighters and separatists manning a checkpoint in a rural
location west of the big industrial city of Donetsk.
The pro-Kiev fighters issued a Facebook statement late in the
day saying four of their men were killed and nine wounded.
"We are determined that honest and transparent elections will
take place," interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk declared
in talks with two European Union foreign ministers as the
bloc's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton voiced support
for Kiev and its election.
Yatseniuk added that, despite separatist plans to disrupt the
poll in eastern areas they control, he believed the majority
of people there opposed the "terrorists" and condemned their
But Russia's President Vladimir Putin, speaking in St
Petersburg, said Ukraine was already in effect in the grip of
civil war. "A civil war is raging through Ukraine. But why
are we the ones who are being blamed for this?" he asked at
an international business forum.
After Yanukovich's overthrow in February, Russia annexed
Ukraine's Crimea region and stationed thousands of troops in
combat readiness near the border with Ukraine as armed
pro-Russian rebels took over strategic buildings in the east.
It looks askance at Kiev's leaders and their pro-Europe
policies, which could take the former Soviet republic out of
Moscow's orbit and denies Kiev's charges that it has fomented
the separatist rebellions in the Russian-speaking eastern
On Friday, Moscow said it would pull back all forces from its
border with Ukraine "within a few days", a move that, if
carried out, could ease tensions around the election.
BIG OBSERVER TEAM
While Germany's Angela Merkel appealed to Russia to accept
the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's
(OSCE) verdict on the vote, Putin sent mixed messages, saying
he would work with the winner and wanted better ties with the
West but fiercely criticising U.S. policy on Ukraine.
The OSCE watchdog has sent a team of more than 1,000
observers to monitor an election in which Ukraine's leaders
say they expect a huge turnout that will offset the loss of
voters in annexed Crimea and separatist-controlled parts of
The man tipped to win, confectionery magnate Petro
Poroshenko, has urged voters to hand him an outright victory,
suggesting that Ukraine's deteriorating security situation
might otherwise derail the election before a second round can
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote on
Sunday, a run-off will be held on June 15, in all likelihood
pitting Poroshenko against ex-prime minister Yulia
The fierce firefight in the eastern Ukraine settlement of
Karlovka underlined the fragility of the security situation.
"The main threat to the elections is the illegal carrying of
weapons and the moving around of people. We do not see an end
to this illegal activity," state security chief Valentyn
Nalivaychenko told journalists.
Underlining the logistical challenges of staging this poll,
Konstantin Hivrenko of Ukraine's Central Election Commission
said voters from five of 12 electoral districts in Donetsk
now blocked by separatists would instead be able to travel to
the city airport to cast their ballots as security there was
Friday's clash, which came a day after at least 13 Ukrainian
servicemen were killed in another fire-fight, did not involve
the army but instead two among several armed groups operating
under various flags in the east.
Pro-Russian separatists, calling themselves the "Patriotic
forces of Donbass", were manning a checkpoint, one of many
set up by the rebels who have proclaimed two "people's
They clashed with self-defence fighters from a pro-Ukrainian
militia called the Donbass battalion.
It was unclear who attacked first. But the fire-fight, in
which the pro-Ukrainian militia said separatists used grenade
launchers and machine guns, lasted more than three hours,
local residents said.
A Reuters correspondent who visited the scene soon after the
clash saw two dead men, both wearing black battle fatigues.
One lay on his back by the roadside, the other lay some way
away near a burned-out warehouse. He had a gunshot wound in
Another fighter, dressed also in battle fatigues, was
clenching his fists in pain as paramedics tended his leg
"A small unit was on the road doing reconnaissance and it ran
into a roadblock where there were many more separatists than
us. They opened sniper fire, they had armoured personnel
carriers and machineguns," said Semen Semenchenko, commander
of the pro-Ukrainian militia force.
He said the separatists included at least 15 Chechen fighters
from Russia's formerly rebel region of Chechnya.
But the separatists said the pro-Ukrainian force, backed by
members of a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist group, opened fire
first. Locals, who mostly stayed indoors once the shooting
began in the early morning, had contrasting views of who was
A 52-year-old woman who gave only her first name, Valentina,
laid the blame at the door of Kiev, which is using the
Ukrainian army in an "anti-terrorist operation" against the
"Why do they (the Kiev authorities) do this? Why is Europe
silent? Everybody was living normally but now everyone is
Asked if she would vote on Sunday, Valentina said: "Who
should I vote for - for people who are killing us and
shooting at us? The answer is No!".
Alexei, in nearby Krasnomaisk, voiced an opposite view as he
brought petrol to pro-Ukrainian self-defence fighters.
"All this is because these idiot separatists want to
undermine the elections. But we will vote anyway. Out of 25
kids in my son's school, only seven are for Ukraine, the
others call my son 'Banderovets'," he said, using a
pejorative label for Ukrainian ultra-nationalists.