Ukrainian soldiers sent to reclaim locations seized by pro-Russian militia in recent days, have been seen in the centre of Kramatorsk.
Kramatorsk’s airfield was recaptured on Tuesday after Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov announced an “anti-terror operation”.
Armored personnel carriers in the town were blocked by pro-Russian locals who were talking to the soldiers.
Tension is running high, with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin warning Ukraine is “on the verge of civil war”.
Vladimir Putin made the comments in a phone call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, after President Oleksandr Turchynov announced the start of the operation on Tuesday.
Russian officials said both leaders “emphasized the importance” during the conversation of planned four-way talks on Thursday between senior diplomats from Russia, the EU, the US and Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers sent to reclaim locations seized by pro-Russian militia in recent days, have been seen in the centre of Kramatorsk
However, Ukrainian and Western officials have accused Russia of being behind the pro-Russia activism in the region. Moscow strongly denies fomenting the unrest.
Ukrainian counter-terrorism chief General Vasyl Krutov, speaking to reporters at Kramatorsk airfield late on Tuesday, emphasized that armed individuals had crossed the border into Ukraine.
“We have to deal with a very serious, highly skilled and very professional opponent,” he said according to Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
“They display a very high level of preparedness, tactical and practical skill. These people must have been to hot spots across the world and on their own territory.”
Last month’s annexation of Crimea by Moscow was preceded by the presence of uniformed, armed men believed to be Russian troops, although in greater numbers than the similarly dressed and equipped men who have been seen in eastern Ukraine, correspondents say.
The Kremlin has condemned the Ukrainian military operation in eastern Ukraine as an “anti-constitutional course to use force against peaceful protest actions”.
Russia’s foreign ministry has expressed “deep concern” at reports of casualties in eastern Ukraine, but these cannot be confirmed.
Tensions have mounted in recent days after pro-Russian rebels seized buildings in about 10 towns and cities across eastern Ukraine.
They are demanding greater autonomy or referendums on secession from Ukraine.
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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
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 (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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