20 Apr 2014

Ukraine gun battle shatters Easter truce – but who did it?

At least two people were killed in a gun battle in eastern Ukraine. The outbreak of fighting in Slaviansk broke the uneasy silence that had fallen on the area after Kiev promised a truce over Easter.

Pro-Russian separatists blamed a Ukrainian faction, which in turn pointed the finger at Moscow over the shooting. The separatists said the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector attacked them. But the Right Sector insisted Russian special forces were behind the clash.

The exact death toll also differed, with Reuters reporting two bodies were seen, while fighters claimed the numbers of dead and wounded were greater.

As a result of the clash, Moscow questioned Kiev’s commitment to the Geneva deal to bring the stand-off in eastern Ukraine to an end. On Friday, the Ukrainian government threatened to move against the pro-Russian groups after the Easter weekend. But ministers promised a truce in the meantime. And there were hopes that the situation could be resolved.

Regardless of who was behind it, Sunday’s fighting has made that a more remote possibility.

Ukraine two dead after shooting breaks Easter truce

“People jumped out of Jeeps and started shooting at us. They threw stun grenades. Our people started running in various directions when somebody shouted ‘down’,” said one pro-Russian witness.

The activist Vladimir added: “A sniper was shooting those who tried to run into the village. The first who ran was killed by a sniper right away, then there was a second dead. There was another man, he was crawling, he wouldn’t get up, he was just lying there waiting for a miracle.

“I cannot imagine what would happen if those four vans would pass through (the checkpoint) when people were getting ready to go to church, when they were just about to start celebrations, when everyone was certain there would be no attack.”

‘Now no one can expect any mercy from us’

A self-styled mayor of Slavyansk and a pro-Russian supporter Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, who also believed the attackers were Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, said from now on his fighters will have no mercy for anyone.

“There was an attack on our checkpoint near Bylbasovka. Three of our people died as a result of attack. On their side we can so far see one dead. But our fighters tell us they also carried losses away apart from this one dead whose body is in our possession.

“Until today these were just clashes with minimal losses, but now no one can expect any mercy from us,” he said.

A Reuters cameraman reported seeing the bodies of two people following Sunday’s fighting; one with what appeared to be gunshot wounds to the head and face.

This was clearly carried out by Russian special forces – Right Sector spokesman Artem Skoropadsky

Separatist militiamen told the agency that a convoy of four vehicles had approached their checkpoint at around 2:00 am and opened fire. “We had three dead, four wounded,” said a separatist fighter at the checkpoint, where there were two burned-out jeeps.

He said the separatists returned fire and killed two of the attackers, who he said were members of the nationalist movement which has its power base in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country and is reviled by many in the Russian-speaking east.

“The Easter truce has been violated,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. “This provocation … testifies to the lack of will on the part of the Kiev authorities to rein in and disarm nationalists and extremists.”

Right Sector spokesman Artem Skoropadsky said it was a “blasphemous provocation from Russia: blasphemous because it took place on a holy night for Christians, on Easter night. This was clearly carried out by Russian special forces.”

Read more from International Editor Lindsey Hilsum: The power of parody in eastern Ukraine

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said it mounted no forces in the Slaviansk overnight and described it as “the most dangerous place in Ukraine, in view of the presence in the town of foreign saboteurs and illegal armed groups”.

“At the same time,” it added, “One cannot but suspect the speed with which camera crews from Russian TV stations appeared at the scene of the shooting, and the obviously staged subject matter of news reports in the Russian media.”

It also noted that the news was broken by media run by Dmitry Kiselyov, a journalist who is close to President Putin and who, according to the ministry, is the subject of visa bans imposed by the United States and EU as part of sanctions aimed at punishing Russia for annexing Crimea.

Meanwhile there are claims in Russian media that one of the gunmen was captured and is being held as the first “prisoner of war” of this conflict.