Ukraine crisis: Death toll rises in a nation fearful of more bloodshed

Kim Sengupta reports from Slovyansk, where eight observers have been seized by separatists

Slovyansk

It was the second funeral that Father Nicolai had conducted in a week of people killed in the violent strife tearing apart his homeland: this time the victim was from a village where he had once lived, a young man shot dead two days before his 22nd birthday.

“A young man, a good young man, who had not harmed anyone: the government called him a terrorist, that is a great pity, he didn’t deserve to die and he didn’t deserve to be given a bad name”, said the priest after the service, sitting under a tree on the grounds of the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky. He held up the ornate cross from under his flowing beard. “May he find peace with our Lord.”

According to the administration in Kiev, Aleksandr Lubenets was killed in an anti-terrorist operation in which troops destroyed a checkpoint defended by heavily-armed militants. His family and other people who knew him, like Father Nicolai, say this is untrue, the 22 year old was not armed, he was nowhere near the barricade, but at a bus stop in the village of Khrestiche a few hundred yards from his home.

The priest was keen to stress to me: “I know this particular case well, my mother lives on the same street as this boy’s family. It was a trap: Aleksandr was told by someone that suspicious people were around, he was worried and went to have a look, and that’s where they killed him.” 

Father Nicolai, the dean of the cathedral, had started off saying that he would not stray into politics; but it is difficult not to do so now in eastern Ukraine. “You see, people here are very patriotic, they are prepared to defend their family and their community.  People are angry, I tell them not to get involved in violence, they understand, but obviously there is the risk of more bloodshed.”

A funeral in the town A funeral in the town The spiral of strife would be difficult to break , especially in Sloveynsk. Last weekend, Father Nicolai was saying the prayer for the dead here, in another church, over the bodies of 53 year old Sergey Rudenko, Pavel Pavelko, 42 and Alexander Siganov, 24. Their killings was said to be the work of the Right Sector, an ultra nationalist group accused by protestors of carrying out assassinations on behalf of the government.

Two bodies were found floating in the river near the city a few days later; both had been tortured. One was of a 19 year old student from Kiev, Yuri Popravko, the other Vladimir Rybak, who had disappeared from the nearby city of Horlivka, where he was a councilor, after an angry confrontation with pro-Moscow demonstrators. Separatist leaders had vowed revenge; on Saturday a Ukraninan forces MI-8 helicopter gunship was blown up after coming under fire at the airport in Kamatorsk where the government’s anti-terrorist operation is based. The same afternoon seven members of a OSCE ( Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) team were taken off a bus heading into Sloveynsk by masked gunmen.

The mission consists of personnel from Denmark, Germany, Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic along with, surprisingly in such a febrile situation, officers from Ukrainian forces. Sloveynsk’s  newly installed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, claimed that two of them may be “spies”. Appearing at the funeral for Mr Lubenets he claimed that at least one of the party was carrying maps in which separatist checkpoints in the area. “Yes they are captives. These are officers from Nato member states, as we found maps on them containing this information, we get the impression that they are carrying out a certain spying mission” he maintained.

Some of the OSCE party were reported to have been spotted with hoods over their heads and hands tied behind their backs. In Kiev, Ukraine’s state security service charged “The officials are being held in inhuman conditions in the basement of the terrorists’ headquarters.  The terrorists plan to use the hostages as a human shield. Among those detained is a person who needs immediate medical help.”

The new mayor Vyacheslav Ponomaryov The new mayor Vyacheslav Ponomaryov The Russian government announced it was trying to get the OSCE representatives released. On the streets of the city, opinions differed about what should be done with the arrested officers among the militant fighters. “If the Russians want them to be released, they should be released, we don’t have a choice”, said Mikhail Andreiovic,  a former Ukrainian soldier.  His companion Leonid disagreed: “ If these people are spies we should only let them go if they release some of our people in Kiev. Or we should hold them to stop the [Ukrainian] soldiers attacking the city. There will be a lot of civilian casualties if they do that.”

After embarrassing initial reverses in their mission, including the loss of armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to the militants, the Kiev forces have now begun to set up checkpoints around Slovyansk. The city had become a symbolic as well as strategic stronghold for the secessionist movement and is expected to be the first target for the Kiev government to retake.

The attitude of the Ukrainian units towards the mission varies. On one road, near the town of Sviatorhirsk, around two dozen troops in black combat fatigues began carrying out robust searches of vehicles and passengers. When one driver asked why they were being “so aggressive”, the angry response was: “This is a military operation, we are trying to catch terrorists, we will do whatever it takes, what do you expect?”

Others, however, are more thoughtful. Major Vitaly, of the airbourne brigade, commanding an APC checkpoint in the road from Horlivka, stated: “My men and I are not going to open fire on fellow Ukrainians, that will illegal. Our rules of engagement are quite clear, we are here in support of the civic power, the police.”

Just who had been carrying out the attacks on the separatist positions remain unclear. Although APCs had appeared at the scene, the shootings are said to have been by “men in black”. It was gunmen in such attire who were said to have emerged from a black four-wheel drive car to kill Mr Lubenets; an echo of the previous, checkpoint, attack in which three people died.

Units of the Ministry of Interior police wear black combat clothing. The common belief among local people, however, is that those culpable are members of the Right Sector—- an allegation  the separatist leadership is happy to disseminate.

At the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, Father Nicolai was of the view: “Of course, we don’t want any violence at all. But if fighting does take place, I think the Ukrainian soldiers will just block off roads and the attack will be carried out by others, maybe the Right Sector”. A fellow priest began to say: “ Maybe Right Sector or private [security] companies,  in the pay of the Americans….” Before Father Nicolai firmly intervened : “We shouldn’t get into politics.” 

The Dean agreed, however, that a “third force was trying to divide Ukrainians, to divide families, bring blood and terror”. But what was this “third force”? I asked. “ It is the Devil, he can come in disguise, he is the great deceiver.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin Russian president Vladimir Putin Ukraine crisis update

EU ambassadors are expected to meet tomorrow to discuss extending sanctions against Russia in response to the continuing crisis in Ukraine.

Sources yesterday said diplomats from the bloc are expected to add 15 individuals to those already facing asset freezes and travel bans, while other options will also be discussed.

The meeting follows agreement among the G7, which includes the US, the UK, France and Germany, to "intensify sanctions" against Russia. The White House said some aimed at "cronies" of Russian president Vladimir Putin may be unveiled tomorrow.

In a joint statement G7 leaders said Russia had not taken any concrete steps to implement an accord signed in Geneva to rein in illegal armed groups.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, told US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday that Ukraine must stop its "anti-terrorist" operation to help defuse the crisis. He said the US should use its influence to secure the release of what the Russian ministry called leaders of the "protest movement" in south-eastern Ukraine – a reference to Russian separatists in the region.

The Pentagon said that Russian military aircraft entered Ukrainian airspace on several occasions on Friday night. Russia denied any violation of its neighbour's airspace.

The US continued moves to deploy troops into former Soviet states in eastern Europe in order to pacify fears among their Nato allies over Russia's intentions.

Chris Stevenson

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