Ukraine crisis: Country stares into the abyss as Easter truce is shattered

A deadly attack on separatists in Donetsk threatens the shaky ceasefire agreed in Geneva

Slovyansk

"Yes we are celebrating Easter, we are Christian people. But today is also the anniversary of Hitler's birthday, that is what these fascists were here to celebrate" said an angry Pavel Dubinin. "They came here to murder people in the memory of their Fuhrer."

Other militant separatists agree with his charge that the attacks in the village near Slovyansk, was the work of ultra nationalist gunmen with the connivance of the Ukrainian authorities. This has been vehemently denied by Kiev, but the killings immediately became the subject of angry international accusations and recriminations.

The Kremlin accused the Kiev government with reneging on the Geneva agreement signed last week by failing to disarm the hard right group it blamed for carrying out the attack. The new pro- Moscow mayor of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, maintained there was evidence that it was members of Right Sector who had been responsible for shooting three local residents dead at a checkpoint.

The business card of Dmytro Yarosh, the head of the organization, was produced with the claim that it was being carried by one of the gunmen who was part of the assault team: also found, say the separatists were 'foreign manufactured' weapons and ammunition.

Holding up cartridges supposedly from the cache, Mr Ponomarev declared: "This is what our people are facing now, attempts to kill them. We need help, what I say to Mr Putin is that if you can't send your peacekeepers, please send food, arms, medicine. We are under attack." He announced that Slovyansk and the surrounding area was going to be put under a night-time curfew because of information that further attacks were being planned to target the city which had become a symbolic and strategic stronghold for pro-Russian protestor.

Two bodies, with what appeared to be gunshot wounds to the head and face , were taken away by armed militiamen in the morning. One of them, in civilian clothes, was of Serhiy Rudenko, a local bus drive; the other one, in combat fatigues, was the 'dead Nazi' according to the protestors; his accomplices had escaped in two vehicles out of the four which had been used in the shooting.

In Kiev, a prayer for peace – but Ukraine’s Easter truce is shattered In Kiev, a prayer for peace – but Ukraine’s Easter truce is shattered

The other two four-wheel drives, shot up and burnt out, were by the roadside. Yuri Zhadobin, a separatist coordinator was at the checkpoint at around 3 am when shooting began. "We were celebrating Easter, around 15 of us, when these cars came and began shooting. We started firing back and threw Molotov Cocktails" he said. "The fighting went on for a while; at the end the others [attackers] managed to get away in the confusion. They had a lot of ammunition to cover themselves."

Mr Rudenko, 6o years old, was a pro-Russian activist who had helped build the barricade at his village and used to regularly volunteer for guard duty. "But he was not in any way violent, just an ordinary man" stressed a neighbour, Anatoly Kurochka. " I have known him all my life, he wanted to play a part in making sure that we are safe from these men from western Ukraine who are being sent to harm us."

Pavel Dubinin, who described himself as a partisan of the peoples guard, was convinced of official complicity . "This shows how cynical they are. First of all they call a ceasefire to show how religious they are. Then they use these Nazis to carry out killings. We don't believe that Right Sector will be able to come all this way without help from Kiev. There are people in that junta, especially in the ministry of the interior, who are determined to have a war."

The ministry in Kiev dismissed the accusation, with one official describing Slovyansk as the "most dangerous city in Ukraine" where it has little influence. However, hours after to shooting, Arsen Avakov, the interior minister, announced on his Facebook page that he was coming to the east to meet National Guard and special forces unit.

Mr Avakov has projected himself taking a tough stance in the ongoing confrontation, repeatedly issuing deadlines to protestors occupying government buildings to disarm and depart or face attacks. The separatists, who had ignored the ultimatums, generally regard him with disdain and distaste.

Mr Ponomarev had no doubt about what kind of reception Mr Abakov was going to get in east: "I certainly don't want to meet him, shake hands with a criminal like him. He has a bad reputation for all kinds of things, I would not be surprised if someone puts a bullet through his head", he stated.

Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter outside a church in Lugansk, eastern Ukraine Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter outside a church in Lugansk, eastern Ukraine

Many inhabitants of Slovyansk say they support the demands of the separatists for a referendum to decide whether the region should have autonomy within a federal Ukraine and share a distaste of Kiev. But they are also increasingly apprehensive about Slovyansk's reputation as a pro-Russian bastion attracting violence.

"Of course, I don't hold our self-defence units responsible for this", Svetlana Volodinova was careful to emphasise. "But it is a worry what these fascists would do next. But, above all, we want peace: it is shocking that this should happen at a time when our Lord came back to save us, if these men fighting each other were more religious, we would not be in such a bad situation."

However, this Easter sees the leadership of the Orthodox Church also enmeshed in internecine strife. In Kiev, Patriarch Filaret, in his sermon condemned Russian "aggression against peace loving Ukraine, which voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons" as "something which must be defeated." In Moscow, Patriarch Kirill asked for God's help to counter " the designs of those who want to destroy Holy Russia" and hoped Ukraine would benefit from having officials who are " legitimately elected."

Standing outside the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Donetsk with her husband to receive blessing, Natalya Korulenkova, wanted an end to strife. " I think everyone, including our elders, should now be trying to bring people together, our country is facing a dark time, we need to pray that we survive this."

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