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Last updated: April 22, 2014 9:11 pm
Ukraine’s acting president late on Tuesday ordered a fresh crackdown on pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country after two dead bodies were discovered with signs they had been tortured.
Oleksandr Turchynov said the two individuals – including a regional political ally named as Volodymyr Rybak – were found near rebel-held Slavyansk.
“Terrorists who de facto took the entire Donetsk region hostage have crossed the line in starting to torture and kill patriots of Ukraine,” said Mr Turchynov who was speaking hours after holding talks with Joe Biden, US vice-president.
Ukraine’s defence ministry also said one of its aircraft was shot at while flying over eastern Ukraine amid reports in local media that the airport in Lugansk had been closed.
The latest developments will further undermine the fragile peace accord signed by western powers and Russia in Geneva last week which called for the return of government buildings seized by pro-Russian groups in past weeks.
And the Pentagon announced on Tuesday night that it was sending about 600 soldiers to Poland and the Baltic states bordering Russia for infantry exercises.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the deployments sent a strong message to Nato allies about US commitments to the alliance following events in Ukraine.
Mr Biden earlier on Tuesday warned Russia risked having further sanctions imposed on it unless it stopped “supporting men in masks in unmarked uniforms” from seizing government buildings in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Biden was speaking at the end of a two-day visit to Kiev as an international peace agreement brokered last week in Geneva appeared on the brink of collapse as armed pro-Russian secessionists refused to give up control of government buildings seized in the east of the country weeks ago.
“It’s time for Russia to stop talking and start acting – act on the commitments they made,” said Mr Biden.
Citing photographic and other evidence provided by Kiev’s leadership, US officials have in recent days backed claims that armed Russian military operatives were on the ground in eastern Ukraine leading and co-ordinating seizures of government buildings by the separatist groups.
With Ukraine’s prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk standing alongside, Mr Biden said: “I came here to Kiev to let you know, Mr Prime Minister, and let every Ukrainian know that the United States stands with you.”
Moscow has denied its forces are involved in eastern Ukraine, instead blaming Right Sector, a nationalist group allied with Kiev’s leadership, for instigating fatal clashes this Easter weekend with pro-Russian rebels near the town of Slavyansk. Right Sector has denied involvement and details of the clashes that claimed at least three lives remained patchy as of Tuesday.
“The most acute problem facing the Ukrainian people . . . [is] the ongoing threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity. Ukraine must remain one country. No nation has the right to simply grab land from another nation,” Mr Biden said.
“We will never recognise Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and neither will the world,” Mr Biden said.
Adding to Mr Biden’s criticism of Russia, Mr Yatseniuk said “no country should be allowed to behave like an armed bandit . . . Russia should stick to its international commitments and obligations.”
“They should not behave as gangsters in this modern century,” Mr Yatseniuk said adding that combating rampant corruption will be his government’s priority.
The vice-president’s visit comes amid an escalating geopolitical tug-of-war between the West and Moscow over Kiev’s future and lingering fears that the Kremlin could invade eastern regions of the country under the pretext of protecting large Russian-speaking populations there.
Officials in Washington said the US government would decide “in days” whether to slap additional economic sanctions on Russia should it fail to use its influence to convince the secessionists to disarm and vacate government buildings.
Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, said on Tuesday his country could minimise the impact of sanctions and may appeal to the WTO to preserve access for its exports of energy and other goods.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin moved swiftly to annex Crimea, in the first land grab in Europe since the second world war, and the EU and US are worried over Moscow’s intentions elsewhere in Ukraine
While recent polls show a majority of eastern Ukrainians oppose the pro-Russian groups, simmering separatism and the prospect of fresh military incursions could destabilise Kiev’s pro-western leadership. It could also derail plans to hold a snap presidential election on May 25 following February’s ousting of Moscow-friendly Viktor Yanukovich.
The US has stopped short of arming Ukraine’s dilapidated military. However, the Pentagon said on Tuesday that the US would send 600 troops in the coming days to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia for a military exercise as part of efforts to bolster Nato in eastern Europe.
Mr Biden said Washington was providing “non-lethal support to Ukraine’s security services”, including communications technology and supplies. He also said the US would help Ukraine financially and provide assistance in diversifying its energy supplies away from Russia, “so that Russia can no longer use energy as a weapon against Ukraine”.
Earlier this month, the US Congress gave final approval for more than $1bn in loan guarantees and direct financial assistance to back efforts by Kiev’s cash-strapped government to reform its corruption-ridden economy and integrate economically with the EU. The deal is part of a broader $27bn Western support package that includes EU financial assistance and a $14bn-$18bn standby loan programme that is expected to be approved this month by the International Monetary Fund.
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