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Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has announced the start of an “anti-terrorist operation” against pro-Russian separatists.

Oleksandr Turchynov told parliament it was being conducted “stage by stage, in a responsible… manner”.

Hours later, gunfire was heard at an airbase which officials said had been in the hands of militants.

Oleksandr Turchynov said the airbase at Kramatorsk had been “liberated” from “terrorists”.

Pro-Russian rebels have seized buildings in about 10 towns and cities across Ukraine’s eastern provinces, which form the heartland of Ukraine’s heavy industry.

Thousands of Russian troops are reported to be deployed along the border, kindling fears that any crackdown on the rebels could trigger an invasion.

Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has announced the start of an "anti-terrorist operation" against pro-Russian separatists

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has announced the start of an “anti-terrorist operation” against pro-Russian separatists

Russia annexed the Ukrainian province of Crimea last month, after it broke away and held a controversial referendum on self-determination.

A crowd of some 200 people remained on Tuesday evening, chanting slogans in favor of a referendum on the region’s future.

A spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry expressed “deep concern” at reports of casualties in eastern Ukraine, but these could not be confirmed.

Oleksandr Turchynov said the aim of the operation in the east was to “protect Ukrainian citizens, to stop the terror, to stop the crime, to stop the attempts to tear our country apart”.

Protesters gathered outside parliament in Kiev to demand action against the separatists.

There were reports overnight of gun attacks on rebel checkpoints near the Donetsk town of Sloviansk, where pro-Russian militants seized a police station and a security services building at the weekend.

A police building in Kramatorsk was also seized but the militants there have reportedly now handed back control to the police.

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President Barack Obama has called President Vladimir Putin urging him to use his influence to make separatists in eastern Ukraine stand down.

The phone call between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin came as pro-Russian activists continued to occupy buildings in eastern towns.

For his part, Vladimir Putin rejected accusations of Russian interference, calling the reports “unreliable”.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s acting President, Oleksandr Turchynov, has announced the start of an “anti-terrorist operation”.

He told parliament it had begun in the “north of Donetsk Region” on Tuesday morning and was being conducted “stage by stage, in a responsible and weighed manner”.

The extent of the operation was unclear but unconfirmed reports on Russian media, quoting separatists, speak of Ukrainian armor being on the move near the flashpoint towns of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

President Barack Obama has called President Vladimir Putin urging him to use his influence to make separatists in eastern Ukraine stand down

President Barack Obama has called President Vladimir Putin urging him to use his influence to make separatists in eastern Ukraine stand down

Tanks and armored personnel carriers could be seen parked 44 miles from Sloviansk on Monday.

EU foreign ministers say they will expand a list of names targeted by sanctions.

Tension has been steadily rising since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, formerly part of Ukraine, last month.

The move, condemned as illegal by Kiev and the West, followed the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

The White House said the “frank and direct” conversation between the two presidents was made at Russia’s request.

“The president expressed grave concern about Russian government support for the actions of armed, pro-Russian separatists who threaten to undermine and destabilize the government of Ukraine,” a White House statement said.

“The president emphasized that all irregular forces in the country need to lay down their arms, and he urged President Putin to use his influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to depart the buildings they have seized.”

The statement also threatened Moscow with wider sanctions, saying “the costs Russia already has incurred will increase if those actions persist”.

The Kremlin said in a statement that recent unrest in Ukraine’s south-east was “the result of the unwillingness and inability of the leadership in Kiev to take into account the interests of Russia and the Russian-speaking population”.

The statement said Vladimir Putin had urged Barack Obama to “use the resources at the disposal of the American side” to help prevent any bloodshed.

It dismissed claims that Russia was interfering in Ukraine, saying the accusations were based on “questionable information”.

Thousands of Russian troops are reported to be deployed along the border between Ukraine and Russia. Kiev fears any crackdown on pro-Russian groups could trigger an invasion.

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A crowd of pro-Russian activists stormed a police station in the town of Horlivka, near Donetsk, taking control of the building and ignoring a deadline to leave or face eviction by Ukrainian forces.

Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov hit out at “aggression” from Russia, but signaled support for a national referendum.

Oleksandr Turchynov said Kiev was “not against” a vote on the future of the country, a key demand from protesters.

He also said Ukraine was preparing an “anti-terrorist operation” against gunmen occupying government buildings in Sloviansk and a number of other towns and cities.

Correspondents say people in eastern Ukraine are anxiously waiting to see if Oleksandr Turchynov carries through on his threat to use the army against the pro-Russian groups.

In a televised address to parliament, President Oleksandr Turchynov suggested Kiev would be open to moving from a republic into a federation and giving broader rights to Ukraine’s Russian speakers.

The pro-Russian groups who have seized government buildings in eastern regions are demanding local referendums on either increased local rights or an option to join the Russian Federation.

But Oleksandr Turchynov stopped well short of giving in to these demands by showing support for a national referendum, of which the outcome is uncertain because most people in Kiev and the Ukrainian-speaking west reject the idea of federalization.

“We are not against holding a national referendum,” he said.

“I am certain that a majority of Ukrainians will support an indivisible, independent, democratic and united Ukraine.”

He also used the speech to accuse Moscow of open aggression in the east of the country.

“It’s not a confrontation between Ukrainians, but covert and now no longer covert aggression by the Russian Federation against our country,” Oleksandr Turchynov added.

Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov said it was not in Russia’s interests for Ukraine to break up but added that Moscow wanted all citizens of the country to be given equal treatment by Kiev.

He also denied allegations that Russian agents had been fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine and said he was seeking explanation from US of reports that CIA director John Brennan had visited Kiev.

At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Sunday, Russia urged Kiev not to use force against protesters in eastern Ukraine.

The Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vitaliy Churkin, called on the government in Kiev to “start a genuine dialogue”.

Vitaliy Churkin warned UN diplomats that there were neo-Nazis and anti-Semites within the ranks of “the self-proclaimed government in Kiev”.

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Pro-Russian activists threw rocks at the police HQ in Horlivka before storming it

Pro-Russian activists threw rocks at the police HQ in Horlivka before storming it

A gun battle has erupted in the eastern Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk, Ukraine’s acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov says.

Arsen Avakov said it began when unidentified gunmen tried to storm local administration buildings and police fired back.

Several other official buildings were reported to have been seized in eastern Ukraine on Saturday.

The confrontations come amid rising tension between the new government and pro-Russia protesters.

Earlier, gunmen occupied a police station and a security services building in the town of Sloviansk. Official buildings in Druzhkovka were also reported to have been taken over.

Several official buildings were reported to have been seized in eastern Ukraine

Several official buildings were reported to have been seized in eastern Ukraine (photo AFP)

A Donetsk regional police chief also quit after pro-Russia crowds marched on a police station demanding his resignation.

Eastern Ukraine has a large Russian-speaking population and has seen a series of protests since the ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

The new government in Kiev accuses Moscow of orchestrating the unrest in eastern Ukraine. But Russia denies responsibility.

Protesters in largely Russian-speaking Donetsk, 80 miles from Sloviansk, have been occupying government buildings for days and demanding a referendum on becoming part of Russia.

Trouble continued in several towns and cities on Saturday despite the Kiev government setting a deadline of Friday for all occupations to end.

“Kramatorsk. An attack is under way. Unknown persons fired shots at the district police department. The police are firing shots in response. A shootout is under way,” Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page late on Saturday.

He also reported that an attack on police buildings in Krasny Liman late in the day had been repelled. The gunmen there had been equipped with Russian-made Kalashnikov assault rifles, he added.

There were no reports of casualties in Kramatorsk or Krasny Liman and Arsen Avakov’s comments could not be independently verified.

Earlier, in the town of Sloviansk, dozens of unidentified armed men in camouflage uniform seized the police station and security service premises.

Ukraine’s interim PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk has offered to devolve more powers to eastern regions, where pro-Russian separatists are defying the government.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk is holding talks with regional leaders in Donetsk, where activists demanding self-rule are holding a big government building.

It is not clear if the prime minister’s offer will satisfy the separatists.

The threat of Russia cutting gas deliveries has now prompted Ukraine to seek gas from French and German firms.

The EU says it can pump gas back to Ukraine with reverse-flow pipeline technology. Usually the Russian gas flows to Europe via Ukraine.

In Kiev, Ukraine’s Energy Minister Yuri Prodan said it would seek the gas “on the conditions offered by European gas companies”, which he named as Germany’s RWE and “a French gas company”.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk is holding talks with regional leaders in Donetsk, where activists demanding self-rule are holding a big government building

Arseniy Yatsenyuk is holding talks with regional leaders in Donetsk, where activists demanding self-rule are holding a big government building (photo CNN)

On Thursday, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said in a letter to 18 European countries that gas supplies to Ukraine could be cut if Kiev did not pay off its debts, and warned this could affect gas deliveries to Europe.

In 2009, a Russian gas dispute with Ukraine led to gas shortages in several EU countries.

Gazprom says Ukraine owes it $2.2 billion (1.4 billion euros) and recently doubled the price it must pay.

The US has accused Russia of using energy “as a tool of coercion” over Ukraine, and says it is working to help Ukraine find gas and financing.

In Donetsk, Arseniy Yatsenyuk urged regional leaders to tell locals that the Kiev government would ensure security and economic progress in the east, Interfax news agency reports.

“In the framework of the changed constitution, we will be able to satisfy specific requests of every single region,” he pledged.

But Kiev has rejected Russian pressure to turn Ukraine into a loose federation, fearing that more regions could break away and join Russia.

The separatist protest follows Russia’s annexation of Crimea last month – described as the biggest political confrontation in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

Near Donetsk on Friday seven miners died in a gas explosion, apparently unrelated to the current tensions.

The mainly Russian-speaking region is dominated by Soviet-era coal-mining and heavy industry.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk pledged that the Russian language would keep its official status in the region, in parallel with Ukrainian.

Language is a highly sensitive issue in eastern Ukraine, where ties with Russia are strong.

The billionaire industrialist Rinat Akhmetov – reckoned to be Ukraine’s richest man – is participating in the talks.

NATO says up to 40,000 Russian troops are massed near Ukraine’s eastern border.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for legal guarantees of Ukraine’s neutrality, reminding NATO that it should not try to draw Ukraine into the alliance.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk is also expected to travel to another eastern city, Dnipropetrovsk, which has also seen protests.

Activists in Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking east have also been occupying a state security building in the city of Luhansk, with gunmen armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles among them.

Ukrainian officials are trying to negotiate a deal whereby the protesters would vacate the buildings in return for protection from prosecution.

The interim government accuses Russia of orchestrating the unrest, as a provocation similar to the anti-Kiev protests which gripped Crimea. Russia denies the claim.

Talks are due to take place in Geneva next week between Russia, Ukraine, US and the EU – the first four-way discussions since the crisis began.

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The US is concerned about heightened tension in eastern Ukraine after pro-Russia demonstrators seized government buildings in three eastern cities, Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv.

Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in a phone call that any Russian efforts at destabilization “would incur costs”.

They discussed the possibility of direct talks within the next 10 days.

Ukraine is sending security officials to Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, after buildings there were stormed.

Rebels occupying Donetsk’s regional government building declared a “people’s republic” on Monday and called for a referendum on secession from Ukraine to be held by May 11.

Russia recently annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, where the majority of people are Russian speakers, following a referendum that Kiev and the West say was illegal.

Moscow now has thousands of troops massed along its border with eastern Ukraine. Although it insists it has no intention of invading Ukraine, it says it reserves the right to defend ethnic Russians in the country.

The US has warned Russia against stirring separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine

The US has warned Russia against stirring separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine

Russia is refusing to recognize the new authorities in Kiev who took power after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February.

US state department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said that in the telephone call, John Kerry “called on Russia to publicly disavow the activities of separatists, saboteurs and provocateurs” in Ukraine.

She said John Kerry noted that the actions in eastern Ukraine “do not appear to be a spontaneous set of events”.

“He made clear that any further Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine will incur further costs for Russia,” Jennifer Psaki said.

The US and the EU have already imposed targeted sanctions on Russian and Ukrainian individuals over the annexation of Crimea.

Sergei Lavrov, in an article on the website of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, denied Russia was destabilizing Ukraine and accused the West of “groundless whipping-up of tension”.

He also warned authorities in Kiev against any use of force against pro-Russian demonstrators.

Russia’s foreign ministry said it was “closely watching” events in eastern Ukraine, “particularly in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions”.

It reiterated Moscow’s demands for the creation of a federal Ukraine with broader powers for provinces.

“Stop pointing to Russia, blaming it for all of the troubles of today’s Ukraine,” the statement said.

Pro-Russian protesters seized official buildings in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk on Sunday night. Police said they cleared protesters from the building in Kharkiv but in Luhansk demonstrators had seized weapons.

Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called the unrest an attempt by Russia to “dismember” Ukraine.

Speaking on national TV, he said it was “the second wave” of a Russian operation to destabilize Ukraine, overthrow the government and disrupt planned elections.

Also on Monday, NATO said it was limiting Russian diplomats’ access to its headquarters in Brussels.

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Pro-Russian protesters have declared People’s Republic of Donetsk after seizing the regional government building in the eastern Ukrainian city.

The rebels have called for a referendum on secession from Ukraine by May 11.

Ukrainian security officials are being sent to the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv after pro-Russia groups occupied government buildings.

Ukraine’s Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called the unrest an attempt by Russia to “dismember” Ukraine.

In an address on national TV, Oleksandr Turchynov said it was “the second wave” of a Russian operation to destabilize Ukraine, overthrow the government and disrupt planned elections.

Russia recently annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula after a referendum there which Ukraine did not see as valid.

As tensions mounted on Monday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya told Russia’s Ekho Moskvy news agency that Kiev would go to war with Russia if it sent troops into eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has thousands of troops massed along its border with Ukraine. It says it has no intention of invading but reserves the right to protect the rights of ethnic Russians.

Earlier on Monday, protesters seized state security buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Protesters broke into Donetsk’s regional government building and another in Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second largest city – on Sunday. Ukrainian authorities say protesters have now left the building in Kharkiv.

Pro-Russian protesters have declared People’s Republic of Donetsk after seizing the regional government building in the eastern Ukrainian city

Pro-Russian protesters have declared People’s Republic of Donetsk after seizing the regional government building in the eastern Ukrainian city

Ukrainian news agency Unian says gunmen also tried to storm a Donetsk TV building on Monday but were deterred by police.

At an emergency cabinet meeting, interim PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk blamed Russia for the seizures.

“The plan is to destabilize the situation, the plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow,” he said, adding that people engaged in the unrest had distinct Russian accents.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russian troops remain within 19 miles of the frontier. The city of Luhansk is just 16 miles from the Russian border.

Police have blocked roads into Luhansk and armed reinforcements are being sent to the restive cities.

Officials said Ukrainian National Security Secretary Andriy Parubiy and Security Service chief Valentyn Nalyvaychenko have been sent to the city.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has already arrived in Kharkiv and First Deputy PM Vitaly Yarema is on his way to Donetsk, a spokeswoman said.

She said the three officials had “all the authority necessary to take action against separatism.”

President Oleksandr Turchynov has cancelled a visit to Lithuania to deal with the unfolding events.

Russia’s foreign ministry said it was “closely watching” events in eastern Ukraine, “particularly in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions”.

It reiterated Moscow’s demands for the creation of a federal Ukraine with broader powers for provinces.

“Stop pointing to Russia, blaming it for all of the troubles of today’s Ukraine,” the statement said.

The crisis has heightened nervousness in many other eastern European states, with Czech President Milos Zeman saying NATO should deploy troops in Ukraine if Russia invades.

“If Russia decides to extend its territorial expansion to eastern Ukraine, the fun is over,” he told Czech public radio on Sunday.

In another development on Monday, NATO said it was limiting Russian diplomats’ access to its headquarters in Brussels.

It comes days after NATO foreign ministers agreed to suspend all practical co-operation with Moscow over its annexation of Crimea.

The latest developments come as Ukraine’s defense ministry said a Russian soldier had killed a Ukrainian military officer still loyal to Kiev in eastern Crimea late on Sunday.

The circumstances are unclear. Russian news agencies said prosecutors had opened a criminal investigation into the death.

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Pro-Russian protesters have seized state security buildings in eastern Ukraine’s cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, officials say.

Reports say that in Luhansk the protesters have raided the arsenal in the security building. Police have reacted by blocking roads into Luhansk.

On Sunday, activists broke into the regional government buildings in the two cities and also Kharkiv.

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has called an emergency security meeting.

It comes as Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said a Russian soldier had killed a Ukrainian military officer still loyal to Kiev in eastern Crimea late on Sunday.

Another Ukrainian officer present is reported to have been beaten and detained by Russian troops.

Pro-Russian protesters have seized state security buildings in eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian protesters have seized state security buildings in eastern Ukraine (photo Reuters)

The circumstances of the incident are unclear. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted the Defense Ministry as saying the incident happened outside the Ukrainian’s living quarters.

Russian reports said a group of Ukrainian soldiers had been drinking in the town of Novofyodorovka and were on their way home when they passed Russian soldiers guarding an entry to the military base where they previously worked, prompting an argument between the two groups.

Russian news agencies reported that prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the death – one of few fatalities reported since Russia took control of Crimea last month.

Tensions have escalated in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks. Russia is consolidating its grip on Crimea, annexed by Moscow last month, and thousands of Russian troops remain massed near the Ukrainian border.

Ukrainian authorities say protesters have now left the government building in Kharkiv.

In Luhansk, on Monday police said “unknown people who are in the building have broken into the building’s arsenal and have seized weapons”.

In Donetsk, groups occupying the provincial government building remain barricaded inside.

President Oleksandr Turchynov cancelled a visit to Lithuania to deal personally with the unfolding events.

Meanwhile Ukraine’s PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk has accused Russia on Monday of sowing unrest in his country’s eastern provinces as a pretext for dispatching troops across the border.

Speaking at an emergency Cabinet meeting, Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russia was behind the seizures of several government buildings in eastern regions that have for weeks seen a spike in secessionist sentiment.

“The plan is to destabilize the situation, the plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow,” he said, adding that people engaged in the unrest have distinct Russian accents.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russian troops remain stationed within 19 miles of the frontier. The city of Luhansk is just 15 miles west of Russia.

Eastern Ukraine was the political heartland of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president who fled to Russia in February after months of protests.

About half of the region’s residents are ethnic Russians, many of whom believe Ukraine’s acting authorities are extreme Ukrainian nationalists who will oppress Russians – a claim Kiev denies.

Russia has moved large numbers of troops to areas near the Ukrainian border, and has asserted its right to intervene in Ukraine in order to protect the rights of ethnic Russians there.

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Pro-Russian protesters have stormed government buildings in eastern Ukrainian cities Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv.

Protesters clashed with police, waved Russian flags and called for a referendum on independence from Ukraine.

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov called an emergency security meeting.

The unrest comes amid tensions between Russia and Ukraine over the removal of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

In Donetsk, about 50 people broke away from a rally of about 2,000 people in the city centre, and got past a police cordon to enter the regional administration building.

The activists shouted “Donetsk is a Russian city” and raised Russian flags above the building.

Pro-Russian protesters clashed with police, waved Russian flags and called for a referendum on independence from Ukraine

Pro-Russian protesters clashed with police, waved Russian flags and called for a referendum on independence from Ukraine (photo Reuters)

Some called for the region to have a referendum on the region’s independence from Ukraine.

A similar referendum held in the Crimean peninsula in March led to Russia’s annexation.

In Luhansk, near the Russian border, dozens of demonstrators stormed the offices of the state security agency.

Ukrainian media said protesters pelted the building with eggs, a smoke grenade and a firebomb.

Similar incidents were later reported in Kharkiv.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has vowed to protect Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine.

President Oleksandr Turchynov has cancelled a diplomatic trip to Lithuania to deal with the unrest, according to his press service.

The statement said Oleksandr Turchynov would hold an emergency meeting with the heads of security services.

Tensions are running high between Ukraine and Russia, with thousands of Russian soldiers still said to be deployed along the border.

Viktor Yanukovych was forced from office in February, following months of street protests.

The new administration has faced continuing opposition from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions, particularly in the east of the country.

Russia has said it will defend the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine – which it claims are under threat under the new government – but has said it will not send troops into the rest of the country.

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