Kiev reportedly suspends its “anti-terror operation” in eastern Ukraine after five pro-Russian militants are killed and Russia orders military exercises on the Ukraine border.
Ukrainian forces said they had killed several pro-Russian militants in clashes as they closed in on the separatist-held city of Slaviansk on Thursday, seizing rebel checkpoints and setting up roadblocks as helicopters circled overhead.
Journalists saw a Ukrainian detachment with five armoured personnel carriers take over the checkpoint on a road north of the city in late morning after it was abandoned by separatists who set tyres alight to cover their retreat.
But two hours later the troops pulled back. Local militia moved in and began reinforcing the position with sandbags. It was unclear why the military had withdrawn.
The Kiev Post reported that news of military manouevres by Russia had prompted Ukrainian officials to suspend operations in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s acting president Oleksander Turchinov called on Russia to pull troops back from their border, stop interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs and end what he called its “blackmail”.
As the offensive at Slaviansk was confirmed, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it would be a very serious crime for Ukraine to use its army in the east and said there would be “consequences”.
Russian Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was also quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying: “The go-ahead has already been given (by the Kiev) authorities for the use of force against civilians.
“If this military machine is not stopped, it will lead to greater numbers of dead and wounded”.
The minister said that starting on Thursday, battalions of tactical groups from the armed forces’ southern and western military districts would begin exercises in regions of Russia bordering Ukraine.
He added: “Apart from that, the air force will conduct flights to train for manoeuvres along the state borders.”
Elsewhere, the Ukrainian government said a town hall at Mariupol in the east of the country had been “liberated” on Thursday from pro-Russian protesters, but the situation on the ground was less clear.
Dozens of pro-Moscow demonstrators were surrounding it later in the day and controlling access to the building, which was still flying the separatist flag. Tyres and barbed-wire barricades remained in place.
Police were working inside the five-storey city hall, which appeared to be otherwise empty.
Earlier, US President Barack Obama threatened more sanctions against Russia if it does not deliver on promises in an agreement reached in Geneva last week to ease tensions in Ukraine.
He said: “What I’m saying is that we have prepared for the possibility of applying additional sanctions, that there are a whole bunch of technical issues behind that. There’s always the possibility that Russia tomorrow or the next day reverses course and takes a different approach,” he told the news conference.
“Do I think they’re going to do that? So far the evidence doesn’t make me hopeful and I think it’s fair to say that as we’ve said earlier this week that it’s a matter of days and not weeks. Assuming that they do not follow through, we will follow through on what we said, which is that there will be additional consequences on the Russians.”