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Last updated: April 13, 2014 2:37 pm
The US has threatened fresh sanctions against Russia after an escalation in the unrest in Ukraine as activists on Sunday seized control of police buildings in several eastern cities, raising fears of further territorial losses following the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
During a call on Saturday with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, “expressed strong concern” that attacks were “orchestrated and synchronised, similar to previous attacks in eastern Ukraine and Crimea”.
According to a senior state department official, the militants were equipped with specialised Russian weapons and the same uniforms as those worn by the Russian forces that invaded Crimea.
The secretary “made clear that if Russia did not take steps to de-escalate in eastern Ukraine and move its troops back from Ukraine’s border, there would be additional consequences”, the official said.
Earlier, Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov sacked Valery Ivanov, head of the SBU state security service in the coal mining and steel producing Donetsk region.
The shake-up came shortly after pro-Russian protesters reportedly occupied regional police headquarters in Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, with other attempts rebuffed in Krasny Liman and Donetsk.
Reports in Kiev said the state security council met overnight to discuss “antiterrorist” measures.
Witnesses said dozens of armed pro-Russian separatists dressed in military attire had set-up road blocks along highways connecting the cities.
Ukraine’s foreign minister Andrii Deshchytsia had also called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in protest, accusing Moscow of involvement in the separatist activities in eastern Ukraine.
Russia said that suggestions of Moscow’s involvement in the unrest in southeast Ukraine were “groundless”.
According to the Russian foreign ministry’s account of the call between Mr Lavrov and Andrii Deshchytsia, the Ukrainian foreign minister claimed that there were Russian agents in these regions and that a few of them had been arrested.
Mr Lavrov responded that similar accusations had been made by Washington, but that “no concrete facts were presented”.
While emotional attachment to Russia runs deep, most exports – legal and smuggled – head in the opposite direction bound for the west
The separatists argue that Ukraine’s new pro-western government has failed to adequately decentralise power and funding to the region and has threatened restrictions on the Russian language, discriminating against a significant minority in the east of the country.
The prime minister on Friday promised the Russian-speaking east that he was willing to grant them greater governing authority.
Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior minister, warned of “a very severe response” after the latest actions by what he called “self declared defence forces”.
Boris Kolesnikov, an influential lawmaker and businessman from Donetsk region and close associate of Ukraine’s richest oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, said Kiev’s new pro-western government could defuse separatist sentiment by swiftly devolving more governing authority and control over finances to regional governments.
“I don’t think” this is a repeat of the Crimean scenario, he said adding that “it’s not too late” to keep the country together.
Mr Kolesnikov denied allegations that eastern Ukraine’s leading oligarchs – who were influential under ousted president Viktor Yanukovich – were supporting the separatists to win more power for the region.
“What do the people in the east want? They don’t want to see armed neo-fascists from western Ukraine and Kiev in their region,” he said. “They don’t want all of their taxes going to Kiev. And they don’t want to be told what language to speak.”
President Vladimir Putin moved swiftly to annex Crimea, in the first land grab in Europe since the second world war, and EU and worries remain over Moscow’s intentions elsewhere in Ukraine
Observers have called for caution to avoid any escalation of violence, mindful of the risk of triggering further aggression and bloodshed.
Arseniy Yatseniuk, the interim prime minister, visited Donetsk on Friday to reassure groups that there would be no restrictions on speaking Russian.
The US has continued to step up diplomatic pressure, with fresh sanctions imposed on Friday on the Crimean gas subsidiary of Ukraine’s national operator, further isolating the region.
Russia was sharply reprimanded on Thursday by the Council of Europe, the human rights organisation, for its invasion of Crimea, in the latest sign of international criticism of President Vladimir Putin.
The parliamentary assembly of the council voted by a large majority to suspend Russia’s voting rights for the rest of the year, and exclude it from representation on the organisation’s activities.
It concluded that the military occupation of Ukrainian territory, the threat of military force, recognition of the illegal so-called referendum and the annexation of Crimea “constitute, beyond any doubt, a grave violation of international law”.
The vote – by 142 votes to 22 with 21 abstentions – comes as Europe and the US stepped up rhetoric ahead of potential fresh financial sanctions, in efforts to calm tensions and fears of further unrest or Russian invasion in the east of Ukraine.
Aleksey Pushkov, who heads Russia’s delegation to the assembly, dismissed the decision as a “farce” and a “rough violation of Russia’s rights,” adding that Moscow was considering quitting the organisation.
Additional reporting by Geoff Dyer in Washington
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