Pro-Russian insurgents fighting Ukrainian government forces faced public dismay and a new challenge from the country's richest man today as Russia's Defence Ministry said its units have started dismantling their camps in the border regions.
A day after President Vladimir Putin issued a pullout order in an apparent bid to ease tensions with the West over Ukraine, the Russian Defence Ministry said that its forces in the Bryansk, Belgorod and Rostov regions were preparing for a journey to their home bases.
Nato, which estimates that Russia has 40,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, said it is watching the situation closely, but could not yet confirm a change. Nato spokeswoman Oana Lungescu challenged the Russians on Tuesday “to prove that they are doing what they are saying.”
The developments happened on the same day the country's richest man, steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, warned that the country was sliding towards a potential "genocide" as fighting between pro-Russian separatists and pro-Kiev supporters continues.
The Russian Defence Ministry said it would take time for troops to dismantle their camps and load equipment on trucks for a march to railway stations. It didn't say how many troops were being pulled out from the three regions or how long it would take.
Footage broadcast by Russian television showed what it said were troops on their way out, but their exact locations and routes remained unclear.
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
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Ukrainian soldiers from the 'Azov' battalion guard their base in Mariupol, Donetsk
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Children were transferred from orphanages in Donetsk and Makeyevka to escape the fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists
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Ukrainian servicemen captured by pro-Russian separatists sit on the ground as they are assigned to clean a street in Snizhne in the Donetsk region
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A view inside the Youth Culture Centre destroyed by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk
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A woman holds a portrait of her dead son as she speaks during a rally in front of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office in Kiev
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A boy ascends the stairs of a bomb shelter after the shelling in the Petrovskiy district in Donetsk
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A medic looks at thirty coffins prepared for the funerals of pro-Russian rebels killed during heavy fighting at Donetsk airport, outside a Donetsk morgue
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Relatives mourn near the coffin of Mark Zverev, a taxi driver shot dead during clashes at the Donetsk airport between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian rebels, during his funeral in the village of Grabari on the outskirts of Donetsk
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Medical workers carry a wounded pro-Russian militant on a stretcher after armed clashes occured between pro-Russian gunmen and Ukrainian troops in Slavyansk
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A member of a newly-formed pro-Russian armed group called the Russian Orthodox Army mans a barricade near Donetsk airport
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Black smoke rises from a shot down Ukrainian Army helicopter outside Slovyansk
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A woman is overcome with emotion as she looks at blood stains and damage around a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
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A local man looks at damage near a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
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A bloodstained icon of Jesus is seen among blood soaked shattered glass atop a wrecked truck near the Donetsk airport
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A family member attends a funeral for Olga Prokhorenko (60) who was killed by shrapnel after Ukrainian government forces shelled their location, during the funeral in Slovyansk
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A woman reacts after seeing the lifeless body of a man killed by shrapnel following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Slovyansk
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Pro-Russian militants take position on the roof of the international airport of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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A woman embraces a pro-Russian separatist from the "East" battalion during a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk
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A Ukrainian helicopter Mi-24 gunship fires its cannons against rebels at the main terminal building of Donetsk international airport
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A pro-Russian gunman changes his position near the airport, outside Donetsk
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A pro-Russian gunman aims his weapon near the airport, outside Donetsk. Ukraine's military launched air strikes against separatists who had taken over the airport in the eastern capital of Donetsk in what appeared to be the most visible operation of the Ukrainian troops since they started a crackdown on insurgents
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Pro-Russians ride on a truck in Donetsk. A convoy of an armored personnel carrier and seven trucks carrying several hundred heavily armed men drove through central Donetsk and gunmen got out of the trucks, stood to attention and gave shots in the air in jubilation as a crowd of several thousand supporters cheered them and chanted: "Heroes!"
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An elderly woman leans against the chest of a pro-Russian gunman in Lenin square in Donetsk
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Pro-Russian militants guard a psychiatric hospital after shell explosions during the fighting between pro-Russian militants and the Ukrainian army, in Semyonovka village, outside Slavyansk
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Ukrainian troops stand guard at a checkpoint on the road near the eastern city of Izum, Donetsk
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Members of the Democratic Alliance party take part in a performance in front of the French embassy in Kiev. Protesters set up a pool with the blood of animals and models of warships in a protest against French plans for the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to the Russian Navy
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A man carries a portrait of pro-Russian activist Vadim Hudich, who was killed in a shooting incident at the head of a funeral procession in the eastern Ukranian town of Krasnoarmeisk
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A voter is seen inside a voting booth at a polling station during the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission sort ballots as they start counting votes of referendum on the status of Luhansk region in Luhansk
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Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box as they start counting votes of the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission empty ballot boxes as they start counting votes after a referendum, at a polling station in Lugansk
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Local residents watch as others give first aid to a man who was shot in the leg by Ukranian militia in the village of Krasnoarmisk. Eyewitness said that Ukranian militia tried to stop the referendum voters briefly taking the City Hall of Krasnoarmisk, where unarmed pro-Russian supporters were gathering. Reportedly the Ukranian militia came out out the building and started shooting at the people, killing at least one man and leaving at least two others injured
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Members of a local election commission count votes after a referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members at a polling station in Donetsk
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Voters visit a polling station to take part in the referendum on the status of Donetsk
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An Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) with a Russian flag drives through the center of Slaviansk during the day of referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members in Slavyansk
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A statue of Lenin is placed in front of a pro-Russian barricade on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk
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A feamle veteran (C) sings during 'Victory Day' celebrations in Donetsk
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People stand near the burning Mariupol police station
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Ukrainian soldiers stand guard beside an armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint in Mariupol. Ukrainian forces seized the rebel-held city hall in the eastern port city of Mariupol, driving out pro-Russian activists, then withdrew, making no attempt to hold onto the building
Putin's order made it clear that he has no immediate intention of sending the Russian army into eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have seized government buildings and clashed with Ukrainian government forces in weeks of fighting that has left dozens dead.
On Tuesday, the rebels continued to exchange fire with government forces on the outskirts of the eastern city of Slovyansk, which has been the epicentre of clashes.
Yekaterina Len, a 61-year-old resident of the city, whose house was hit by a mortar shell that appeared to be fired by government troops, burst into tears as she looked at the wreckage. She survived the shelling by spending the night with neighbours.
Len and other residents of Slovyansk sounded exasperated and angry with both the warring sides. Some said that many houses were hit when rebels moved around the area, shooting at government troops and drawing retaliatory fire.
“They must stop with this banditry so that there can be peace,” said another Slovyansk resident, Lina Sidorenko. “How much longer can this go on? We had a united country and now look what's happened.”
Multi-billionaire Akhmetov, who owns factories across the troubled east, called on his employees to hold peaceful protests on Tuesday in defiance of separatists who plan to disrupt a May 25 presidential election.
In his strongest condemnation yet of the separatists, who have seized strategic points in towns in the heavily industrialised Russian-speaking east, Akhmetov urged people to unite "for Donbass without weapons! For Donbass without masks!"
Akhmetov, a coal and steel magnate who has an estimated 300,000 employees on his payroll, said Ukrainians should stage a "peaceful warning protest" at their companies from noon on Tuesday when sirens would sound across the region.
He said the action should continue daily "until peace is established" and he also urged motorists to join in the protest by sounding their horns.
The sharpness of Akhmetov's attack on the separatists, who he accused of waging a "genocide of the Donbass", appeared to confirm that he was now committed to supporting the efforts of the struggling interim government in Kiev to stabilise the situation in Ukraine with Sunday's presidential election.
Akhmetov, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes magazine at $11.4 billion, is the most powerful single person in the east because of the huge reach of his business empire.
But his full support for the Kiev authorities had been in doubt until recently, given his past association with Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich who was ousted by mass street protests in Kiev in February. Yanukovich has fled to Russia.
Separatist rebellions erupted in the east after the Kiev "Euromaidan" uprising, fuelled by cross-border propaganda from Moscow critical of Kiev's pro-Western authorities. Russia also seized Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
Earlier this month, Akhmetov's Metinvest company, one of the most powerful in the region, sent miners and metalworkers to the town of Mariupol to join police on patrol, in a further sign the tycoon had decided to enter the political fray.
In his latest statement, issued overnight, Akhmetov sharply attacked for the first time separatists in Donetsk who have proclaimed an independent Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and have called for it be absorbed into Russia.
"Does anyone in Donbass know at least one representative of this DPR? What have they done for our region? What jobs have they created?
"Does walking around Donbass towns with guns in hands defend the rights of Donetsk residents in front of the central government? Is looting in cities and taking peaceful citizens hostages a fight for the happiness of our region? No, it is not!
"It is genocide of Donbass!,
Russia has scathingly criticised the new Ukrainian authorities, who came to power in February after the toppling of a pro-Russian president, for using the military against the rebellion. The rebels declared the Donetsk and Luhansk regions independent following referendums earlier this month, which Ukraine and the West have denounced as a sham.
However, Putin's order to withdraw troops from areas near the border and his support for Ukraine's presidential vote this Sunday, which he had previously sought to postpone, appeared to reflect a desire to de-escalate the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold-War era and avoid further Western sanctions.
The US and the European Union have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin's inner circle over Russia's annexation of Crimea. They have threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to grab more land or attempts to derail Ukraine's presidential election.
AP; ReutersReuse content