Kiev says three pro-Russia activists killed in base attack
Separatists attacked a base of the Ukrainian national guard overnight and Kiev said three separatists were killed, the worst bloodshed yet in a 10-day pro-Russian uprising in east Ukraine, overshadowing crisis talks to resolve the conflict.
Ukrainian, Russian and Western diplomats arrived for the emergency talks in Geneva, but there was little hope of any progress in resolving a crisis that has seen armed pro-Russian fighters seize whole swathes of Ukraine, while Moscow masses tens of thousands of troops on the frontier.
President Vladimir Putin, who overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy last month by declaring Russia's right to intervene in neighboring countries and annexing Ukraine's Crimea region, accused the authorities in Kiev of plunging the country into an "abyss".
Kiev fears that he will use any violence as a pretext to launch an invasion.
"Instead of realizing that there is something wrong with the Ukrainian government and attempting dialogue, they made more threats of force ... This is another very grave crime by Kiev's current leaders," Putin said in a televised question-and-answer session with the Russian public that has become an annual event.
"I hope that they are able to realize what a pit, what an abyss the current authorities are in and dragging the country into," said Putin, who dismissed as "rubbish" accusations that Russian agents were acting in east Ukraine.
At the national guard headquarters in Mariupol there was clear evidence that the building had come under attack.
A single grey police jeep was inside the compound on Thursday morning with broken windows, flat tires and bent doors. The gates of the compound had been flattened. There were shell casings outside the gates and several unused petrol bombs.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said an armed group of about 300 separatists attacked the base with guns and petrol bombs. Three separatists were killed and 13 wounded, he said. No guardsmen were hurt.
The new deadly clashes took place hours after a modest Ukrainian military operation to recapture territory elsewhere from armed pro-Russian rebels ended in disarray on Wednesday, with troops surrendering rather than open fire.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in about 10 towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on April 6. In the biggest province in the region they have declared an independent "People's Republic of Donetsk".
On Wednesday, an armored column of Ukrainian paratroops was humiliated in an attempt to retake some towns. Pro-Moscow separatists took control of some of their armored vehicles and crowds surrounded another column, forcing the troops to hand over the pins from their rifles and retreat.
Acting President Oleksander Turchinov said yesterday the entire paratroop brigade would now be disbanded and those who surrendered would be punished.
European countries and the United States are threatening Russia with more sanctions unless it takes steps at the Geneva meeting to show it will de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine, although officials say they expect no breakthrough.
So far, diplomacy has failed to keep up with events on the ground, with Russia's partisans seizing control of territory before Western countries can formulate a response.
The United States and European Union have so far imposed visa bans and asset freezes on a small number of Russian individuals, a response that Moscow has openly mocked. However, the Western states say they are now contemplating more serious measures that could hurt Russia's economy more broadly, which could be put into place shortly after Thursday's Geneva meeting.
"What I have said consistently is that each time Russia takes these kinds of steps that are designed to violate their sovereignty, that there are going to be consequences," US President Barack Obama said on Wednesday in an interview with CBS. Using words unheard since the Cold War, he said the United States had stronger conventional military forces than Russia, and neither side wanted a conflict.
"We don't need a war," he said.
Western countries have repeatedly made clear they are not prepared to fight for Ukraine, but the NATO alliance announced military deployments on Wednesday to beef up defenses of member states such as Poland and the Baltic countries, which feel threatened by Russian action nearby.
Upon arriving in Geneva on Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia said there was still time for negotiations to ease tensions with Russia.
The European Commission took a step towards preparing for wider sanctions, handing documents to EU member states on Wednesday explaining the potential impact on their economies of stricter trade and financial measures, diplomats said.
The documents examine energy, finance, trade and other areas. A number of EU countries that rely heavily on Russian gas supplies are nervous about possible retaliation from Moscow, and at least one EU diplomat said the measures had to be balanced.