Police officers carry a wounded participant of an anti-war rally during clashes with pro-Russia demonstrators in Donetsk on March 13 2014

At least two protesters were killed late on Thursday in violent clashes between pro-Russia and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

The deaths will stoke tensions in a country rattled by Russia’s military incursions into the autonomous republic of Crimea and as the Moscow-backed referendum on the peninsula’s independence looms.

Those tensions rose to the surface at the UN Security Council in New York on Thursday when Arseniy Yatseniuk, Ukraine’s prime minister, dramatically switched from English to Russian to ask Russia whether it wanted war.

Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, gave him a direct answer: “Russia does not want war and neither do the Russians, and I’m convinced the Ukrainians don’t want that either.”

Mr Yatseniuk replied that Ukraine had historically had “warm and friendly relations’’ with Russia and that he was convinced “that Russians do not want war”.

“I hope the Russian government and the Russian president will heed the wishes of their people and that we return urgently to dialogue and solve this conflict,’’ he added.

The US circulated a draft resolution to the UN declaring Sunday’s independence vote illegal, but Russia vowed to veto it.

Moscow-backed separatist forces in Crimea, unrecognised by Kiev and condemned by much of the international community, are calling for residents to back unification with Russia.

The clashes in Donetsk marked a resurgence of violence in the run-up to the referendum. The violence marks the first fatal clashes in more than three weeks, when the massacre of more than 100 pro-EU protesters, many by sniper fire amid clashes with riot police, triggered the toppling of the pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovich from Ukraine’s presidency.

In Twitter and video postings, pro-Ukrainian demonstrators said two of their number had been killed by pro-Russian activists. One was reportedly stabbed.

“As we protected the women and innocent people . . . they threw stones, sprayed tear gas and hit us with clubs,” one hospitalised pro-Ukrainian protester, with his head bandaged from wounds, said in a video posted on the internet.

Commenting on the violence William Hague, UK foreign minister, tweeted on Friday: The “clashes in Donetsk show how dangerous [the] Ukraine situation is and why [the] Sunday referendum in Crimea should not go ahead.”

Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, tweeted: “Very worrying with deaths in Donetsk. Pro-Russia thugs very active. Important to avoid any provocation.”

The violence in Donetsk, a large coal-mining and steel production city near the eastern border with Russia, follows claims by Ukrainian officials that organised pro-Russian nationalist activists were crossing into Ukraine with the aim of sparking violence and destabilising the situation in the country.

Ukrainian officials have also in recent days expressed concern that Russian officials could use such violent clashes as a pretext to justify a broader military invasion into Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine.

Thursday’s clashes come hours after Russia’s defence ministry said the increased military presence on Ukraine’s eastern border was a result of military training exercises.

That announcement comes two days after Ukraine’s defence minister warned that Russia had mobilised some 200,000 troops on the country’s eastern border.

As the Russian troop build-up in Crimea increased to nearly 20,000, Ukraine’s parliament on Thursday appealed to the UN to address “unprovoked acts of aggression against Ukraine from the Russian Federation and its attempt to annex” Crimea.

Kiev’s parliament also voted to establish a National Guard of 20,000 volunteers and policemen to supplement armed forces in case of a broader Moscow invasion. However, Ukraine’s much smaller army is no match for Russia’s military strength.

While Kiev officials have called upon the west to use all diplomatic, economic and military means to pressure Russia into withdrawing from Crimea and backing away from a full military stand-off, they have also pledged not to capitulate to Russian aggression.

“We will never surrender,” said Mr Yatseniuk during talks in Washington on Wednesday with US President Barack Obama.

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