Putin visits Crimea on Russia's Victory Day, as deadly violence hits eastern Ukraine (LIVE BLOG)

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UPDATE: 5/9/14 3:40 PM ET

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UPDATE: 5/9/14 1:00 PM ET

More individuals and companies will be added to the EU sanctions list

Reuters — European Union ambassadors have agreed in principle to add about 15 people and several Crimean-based companies to the bloc's list of sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region, EU diplomats said on Friday.

The EU has so far imposed asset freezes and visa bans on 48 Russians and Ukrainians over Moscow's annexation of Crimea but it will be the first time the 28-nation bloc has targeted companies.

The new list will include two Crimean firms active in the energy sector, one EU diplomat said. Other diplomats said four or five Crimean companies or organizations would be targeted.

The final decision on extra sanctions will only be taken by EU foreign ministers on Monday, taking account of developments over the weekend when pro-Russian separatists plan to hold an independence referendum in eastern Ukraine, the diplomats said.

European Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski told Polish broadcaster TVN 24 BiS on Friday he expected the EU on Monday to strengthen sanctions against individuals and entities linked to Russia's intervention in Ukraine.

The names of the people and companies set to be added to the sanctions list are kept secret until publication but they are unlikely to include any well-known Russian companies such as energy giant Gazprom.

The companies set to be added to the list on Monday are Crimean branches of Ukrainian companies that have been taken over by Russians, one EU diplomat said.

There have been violent clashes in eastern Ukraine, parts of which have been taken over by pro-Russian separatists.

Yet despite the turmoil, the EU is not yet prepared to move to hard-hitting trade or financial sanctions on Russia, of the kind its leaders threatened in March to impose if Moscow took further steps to destabilize the situation.

Many EU governments fear that tough sanctions could lead to Russian retaliation and damage their own economies. They are also wary of antagonizing a major supplier of energy to the EU.

UPDATE: 5/9/14 12:30 PM ET

A majority of Ukrainians, even in the east, want a united country

If you went by the size and visibility of pro-Russian protests in eastern Ukraine, you would assume that most of the region wants to secede from Ukraine and become the "People's Republic of Donetsk."

Pro-Russian activists march on May 1, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine.

This poll suggests you would be wrong.

A clear majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain united, although more of them reside in the patriotic western part of the country. Pew Research conducted face-to-face interviews with 1,659 adults in the country between April 5-23. They found that 77 percent of those surveyed wanted Ukraine to remain united.

Even among Russian speakers, 58 percent wanted a united Ukraine. The region of Crimea was an exception, with 54 percent wanting the option for regions to secede, compared to 12 percent who wanted a united Ukraine.

In eastern Ukraine, 70 percent want the country to remain intact, while 18 percent want regions to be allowed to secede.

Sunday's referendum, which pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk decided to go ahead with even after Putin urged them to postpone, will ask voters a single, vague question:

"Do you support the act of self-rule of the People's Republic of Donetsk?"

And this is what the head of Donetsk's hastily-established election commission told Reuters: "Okay, it's not really in line with the law, but I think that's the only way out."

According to Reuters, Ukraine's state security service released a recording it claims contains a conversation between a Russian nationalist leader and a leader of the rebels in Donetsk. The Russian's voice is reportedly heard saying, "Just do what you like and write that it [the result] was 99 percent."

The vote is scheduled to take place on Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., across the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Read the full piece in Reuters, which outlines the possibility of vote manipulation and the vagueness of demands from the separatists.

UPDATE: 5/9/14 11:35 AM ET

A closer look at the violence in Mariupol

Reuters has more details on what happened in Mariupol today:

Ukraine's interior minister said security forces had killed about 20 pro-Russian rebels in the port city of Mariupol on Friday, in what appeared one of the biggest actions in Kyiv's attempt to end an insurgency in the country's east.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said an attempt by "terrorists" to seize police headquarters turned into a pitched battle inside the building with Ukrainian army, national guard and security forces.

The Ukrainian forces brought armored personnel carriers into the town and the building caught fire at one point. The rebels then fled into the town.

The clash came amid international attempts to forge some form of settlement in Ukraine to prevent a slide into a civil war that could have dramatic consequences for the whole region.

Mariupol, an important industrial and shipping centre in the Donetsk region that is planning to hold a secessionist referendum on Sunday, has been the focus of frequent skirmishes in recent days. But Friday's action appeared to be a concerted effort by several forces to claw back control from rebels.

"A terrorist group of about 60 men armed with automatic weapons attacked the police headquarters...About 20 terrorists were destroyed and four taken prisoner," Avakov said on his Facebook page.

"To those who come with weapons and who shoot and who take hostages, torture them, rob people, hiding behind various slogans — to them there can be only one answer from the Ukrainian state — annihilation."

The death toll could not be confirmed independently and each side has tended to exaggerate the other's losses during clashes.

If confirmed, it would be among the heaviest tolls inflicted on the rebels during fighting. Kiev says the separatists are backed by Moscow and by Russian special forces on the ground but Russia denies this.

Interpreter Mag collected some of the footage emerging from Mariupol. These clips have not been independently verified by GlobalPost.

This clip appears to show a Ukrainian soldier using an RPG:

This video shows what appear to be civilians, trying to stop an APC:

UPDATE: 5/9/14 11:15 AM ET

Putin tells Crimea, Russia is stronger with you

Reuters — Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday during his first visit to the Crimea region annexed from Ukraine in March, that Russia had become stronger with Crimea.

"I am sure that 2014 will go into the annals of our whole country as the year when the nations living here firmly decided to be together with Russia, affirming fidelity to the historical truth and the memory of our ancestors," Putin said in a brief speech after watching a military parade in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol.

"There is a lot of work ahead but we will overcome all difficulties because we are together, which means we have become stronger."

UPDATE: 5/9/14 10:55 AM ET

Celebrating Victory Day during a crisis

Kyiv Post reported that there were "noticeably fewer people" celebrating Victory Day in Kyiv on Friday. Authorities feared the potential for more provocations from pro-Russian separatists, and Kyiv's Glory Park had a heavy security presence.

In Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, around 2,000 people gathered to mark Victory Day.

Some 1,000 people commemorated Victory Day in the eastern city of Donetsk, visiting war memorials and gathering outside the regional government building.

In Slovyansk:

UPDATE: 5/9/14 10:20 AM ET

Startling violence in Mariupol

Journalists are still trying to piece together what happened today. Fighting broke out this morning in the eastern city of Mariupol, and the death toll is still rising. Initial reports suggested eight were killed in clashes between Ukrainian security forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Ukraine's acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said security forces killed around 20 pro-Russian rebels as they attempted to seize the police headquarters.

James Mates and John Angier are editors for Britain's ITV News:

Olaf Koens is a local journalist, and Shaun Walker writes for the Guardian:

UPDATE: 5/9/14 10:00 AM ET

Putin visits Crimea on Victory Day

Reuters — President Vladimir Putin went to Crimea on Friday for the first time since Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March, a visit that is likely to anger the Ukrainian leadership and upset the West.

The Kremlin press service said Putin flew to Crimea after presiding over the annual Victory Day parade in Moscow marking the anniversary of the World War Two victory over Nazi Germany.

He attended a military parade and other war anniversary events in Crimea. This year is also the 70th anniversary of the battle in which the Red Army won back control of the Black Sea peninsula from the Nazis.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said earlier this week that although May 9 was an important date in Russia, the conflict in Ukraine made a parade in Crimea inappropriate.

Meanwhile in Moscow, tanks rumbled across Red Square and fighter jets screamed overhead on Friday in Russia's biggest Victory Day military parade in years, fueling patriotic fervor as Putin rallied his people over the Ukraine crisis.

Thousands of goose-stepping troops, motorized artillery and ballistic missile launchers paraded past Putin under the Kremlin's red walls in a show of military might, while jets, helicopters and bombers flew in cloudless skies overMoscow.

State television called it the biggest such parade in 20 years on the holiday honoring the World War II victory over Nazi Germany, a day which stirs national pride more than any other in Russia.

Putin sought to maximize the surge of patriotism by also staging big parades this year in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, following its annexation from Ukraine.

But in a break from tradition reflecting the East-West standoff over Ukraine, Moscow and Kyiv did not stage joint marches of their countries' sailors in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based.

Putin has used Crimea to whip up patriotism with the help of state media and did not miss the opportunity to stir national pride some more, with Moscow's accusations that neo-fascists are on the rise in Ukraine ringing in the ears as he praised the Soviet role in defeating fascism.

"The iron will of the Soviet people, their fearlessness and stamina saved Europe from slavery. It was our country which chased the Nazis to their lair, achieved their full and final destruction, won at the cost of millions of victims and terrible hardships," Putin said in a speech to the military and war veterans gathered on Red Square.

"We will always guard this sacred and unfading truth and will not allow the betrayal and obliteration of heroes, of all who, not caring about themselves, preserved peace on the planet."

Moscow has in the last few weeks repeatedly warned of the dangers posed by leaders it portrays as neo-fascists in Ukraine, and urged Europe to prevent the rise of the far-right, although some Putin critics have made similar accusations against him.

Relations between Moscow and the West are at their lowest ebb since the Cold War over the crisis in Ukraine, a fellow former Soviet republic.

UPDATE: 5/6/14 4:40 PM ET

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UPDATE: 5/7/14 4:20 PM ET

All lines are blurred in Ukraine

TIME's Simon Shuster outlines the real problem facing Kyiv authorities:

The Ukrainian military has now encircled both peaceful citizens in the eastern region of Donetsk and fiercely aggressive militant groups. But the question lies in how its troops will tell these groups apart. More than any other factor, this will determine whether Kiev’s campaign results in a massacre of its own people, a restoration of its authority, a Russian “peacekeeping” invasion, or some combination of all three.

TIME's piece takes a look at how lines have blurred between the different factions, as they band together even if their goals are disparate.

We took a look at how the language referring to the separatists has evolved throughout the unrest, from "protesters" and "activists" to "rebels" and "insurgents."

UPDATE: 5/7/14 3:00 PM ET

Putin confused the separatists with his comments

It seems Russia watchers weren't the only ones surprised by Putin's comments urging separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone their planned referendum. BuzzFeed reports:

Pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine scrambled on Wednesday to make sense of surprise remarks from Russian President Vladimir Putin, after he called for a planned independence referendum to be postponed and said Russia had pulled back its troops from the border.

Andriy Porgin, a senior pro-Russian separatist leader in Donetsk who is helping to oversee the referendum, planned for May 11, said he didn’t yet know what to make of Putin’s remarks statement and that the top brass would meet tonight to discuss its implications. “We can’t ignore him,” he said of Putin. He seemed to still be coming to grips with the statement. “I want to read it in context.”

Most registered confusion, bewilderment. Read the full piece.

UPDATE: 5/7/14 1:20 PM ET

Putin's appeal is just a lot of 'hot air,' says Ukraine's PM

Reuters — Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk dismissed as "hot air" Russian President Vladimir Putin's appeal to pro-Russian separatists in eastern regions to postpone a referendum on independence, the Interfax-Ukraine agency said.

Putin had called on the separatists to postpone the referendum, scheduled for Sunday. Kyiv has ruled the referendum illegal.

"Yatsenyuk on Putin's proposal to postpone the referendum in eastern Ukraine: There is no point in dealing in hot air," the brief Interfax-Ukraine bulletin said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon said it saw no change in the Russian force posture along the Ukrainian border, despite Putin's assertion that they had returned to their training areas.

Asked whether Russia could be withdrawing troops without the Pentagon being able to see it, spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters: "We would know."

"We have seen no change in the Russian force posture and we've long called on the Russians ... to withdraw their troops" from along the border, Warren said.

And the White House had this to say on the matter:

"We would certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal" of Russian military forces from the border region, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama to Arkansas and California.

"To date, there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place," Earnest said.

On Putin's appeal to separatists to postpone the referendum, Earnest said, "We've said repeatedly that the referendum is illegitimate, illegal. Secretary of State Kerry referred to this referendum as bogus."

"So we don't believe this referendum should be postponed, we believe it should be canceled."

UPDATE: 5/7/14 11:35 AM ET

How would Putin benefit from eastern Ukraine?

Putin says he has ordered the Russian army to withdraw from near Ukraine's border. NATO says it has seen no indication of such movement. While we wait for confirmation either way, here is Bloomberg's write-up on why eastern Ukraine is so attractive to Russia:

"The parts of Ukraine where separatists and loyalists face off in ever-more violent clashes are home to the most valuable assets of the nation’s defense industry. More than 50 factories form an arms cluster that caters to Russia based on a trade accord from two decades ago, churning out air cargo transporters, helicopter engines and other hardware." 

"'Taking Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions would be hugely beneficial for Russia from a military and economic point of view,' said Mikhail Barabanov, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Defense Brief magazine. 'Russia will have control of the very important and valuable defense companies and plants.'"

The article goes on to note that Putin had actually worked out a trade pact with now ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych that would have forged a closer relationship between the defense industries of the two countries.

TIME's Simon Shuster interviewed Ukraine's interim deputy defense minister Petr Mekhed in April. Mekhed blamed Ukraine's close ties to and dependence on Russia for the Ukrainian military's unpreparedness: 

"In recent years, its military infrastructure has been 'systematically destroyed' through the neglect, corruption and malfeasance of Ukraine’s former leaders, says Mekhed, but bringing them back to working order would require buying up spare parts from Russia, which Moscow has unsurprisingly refused to sell."

UPDATE: 5/7/14 11:10 AM ET

NATO says Russia hasn't withdrawn its forces

Reuters — NATO has no indication that Russia has withdrawn its forces from close to the Ukraine border despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertion that they had returned to their training areas, a NATO military official said on Wednesday.

"We have no indication of a change in the position of military forces along the Ukraine border," the official told Reuters.

UPDATE: 5/7/14 11:00 AM ET

'Ukraine has already said goodbye to us'

Reuters — Behind the barricades of tires and car bumpers, past the masked militants who hold Donetsk's filthy administration building, there is a man in a suit in a spotless office, working from an Apple iMac on a vote to dismember Ukraine.

Roman Lyagin, 33, head of this self-proclaimed republic's electoral commission, does not hide his distaste for the gunmen who seized control here a month ago, but he shares their aims.

"Every revolution accumulates its fair share of loons," he told Reuters. But, he said, "we simply cannot live any more within Ukraine. Ukraine has already de facto said goodbye to us."

If Kyiv has not already lost its industrial east, it risks doing so on Sunday, when people in this steel and coal belt — many of them ethnic Russians or native Russian-speakers — plan to vote in a 'Yes' or 'No' referendum on secession.

What comes next will decide whether this country of some 45 million people slides into civil war, or settles into a frozen conflict that could scupper any plans for integration into Western-led multinational institutions for years to come.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic faces joining Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh and Moldova's Transdniestria as would-be statelets, unrecognized and ignored almost the entire world over since being spawned by the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Kyiv will reject the referendum result, but Russia's response is uncertain. On Wednesday, the Russian president called on separatists to postpone the referendum from its planned May 11 date. Russia annexed Crimea after a similar plebiscite in March, held under the watch of a Russian invasion force, but has been careful not to show its hand ahead of Sunday's vote.

Despite recent opinion polls suggesting only a minority supports secession, Lyagin says the result is in no doubt.

The red-blue-black tricolor flag of the rebel republic already flies at the regional administration building in Donetsk, a well-tended city traversed by a long park dotted with open-air cafes and restaurants. There are nods to the old Soviet order such as a statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.

Beyond the city, large factories and mines loom over a rolling green landscape.

Western observers won't be attending the poll, their absence fueling accusations that it will be fixed. Nor will there be a minimum turnout for the result to stand. Neighboring Luhansk region, on the Russian border, will also vote. Gunmen hold sway there too, stoking fears that not everyone's voice will be heard.

Interviews in towns and cities across the rebel zone reveal deep division among the more than three million people who Lyagin says are eligible to vote.

Reuters reporters have spoken to people who variously want greater autonomy within Ukraine, a federal arrangement, an independent statelet and annexation by Russia.

UPDATE: 5/7/14 10:10 AM ET

Putin calls on separatists to postpone referendum, backs Ukraine's elections

Reuters — Russian President Vladimir Putin called on separatists in east Ukraine on Wednesday to postpone a May 11 referendum on the status of the mostly Russian-speaking region.

Putin spoke after talks with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who said the security and rights body would soon propose a "road map" to defuse the Ukraine crisis.

Putin also said that Russia has withdrawn its forces from its border with Ukraine, where NATO has said there were about 40,000 Russian troops in recent weeks, the Interfax news agency reported.

"We're always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern. We have withdrawn them. Today they are not on the Ukrainian border, they are in places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds," Putin was quoted as saying.

Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region said they would consider Putin's call to postpone the referendum at a meeting of their assembly tomorrow.

"Tomorrow we will discuss that at the people's assembly," Denis Pushilin, a leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, told Reuters. "We have the utmost respect for president Putin. If he considers that necessary, we will of course discuss it."

The BBC also reported that Putin said Ukraine's presidential election would be a step "in the right direction" and called for an end to the violence.

UPDATE: 5/6/14 4:40 PM ET

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UPDATE: 5/6/14 3:35 PM ET

Gunmen melt into background, leaving civilians to man barricades

Reuters — Most mornings Alexandra, a painter and decorator in her late 20s, leaves her 10-year-old daughter at home, puts a starting pistol in her belt and walks to barricades in her hometown Slovyansk.

She is one of several volunteers at checkpoints inside the rebel stronghold town in eastern Ukraine replacing gunmen in camouflage who have melted into the background since Kyiv stepped up what it describes as an anti-terrorist operation.

The self-declared separatist mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, says they are training or resting, but other rebels say it is a strategic move to deter attempts by Ukrainian troops to retake the town by putting civilians in their way.

"Gunmen are standing at the most important checkpoints only," said pro-Russian activist Filipp.

"But if they enter the town, they still will be hit from every window and every backyard. If someone is able to do anything bad to them, they will."

On Friday, Ukrainian troops in armored personnel carriers, supported by helicopters, surrounded Slovyansk, the rebels' most heavily fortified redoubt, taking control of several routes out of the town as part of its "anti-terrorist operation."

Kyiv said its troops had taken all rebel-held checkpoints surrounding the town, trapping the separatists inside and cutting their supply lines.

But Ponomaryov told Reuters his men had simply left the checkpoints. The rebels have launched a fierce attack against the Ukrainian troops in recent days, shooting down three helicopters. At least 10 people have been killed.

Kyiv has accused the rebels of using civilians as human shields, complicating the army's efforts to restore control to swathes of Ukraine's industrial east where the rebels have seized buildings and now run local administrations.

Before the fighting in Slovyansk, all checkpoints were run by at least one well-armed man. Now, the number of barricades has doubled and they are mostly manned by largely unarmed civilians.

On Friday, Reuters encountered a new barricade of felled trees a few hundred meters away from the town centre manned by two teenagers who welcomed cars with gunshots.

They made passengers leave their cars with their hands up to search them, but then apologized for the overreaction.

At a checkpoint near city hall Alexandra says she has no military experience.

"It is only a starting pistol," she says.

"If you shoot someone in the face, you can kill them, but it's not a machine gun. They won't give me a machine gun. I'm not a military person."

Pro-Russian rebel Sergei agrees, saying guns are given only to those who know how to use them. "If you come and you can (fire a gun), you get it," he says. "If you served in the army."

The calm that has descended on Slovyansk belies the town's combat readiness.

When Ukrainian troops approach pro-Russian checkpoints around Slovyansk they usually find them abandoned and the tires that form the barriers on fire — a warning to people inside the town that soldiers are coming.

When fighting starts, people are called to the main square by an air raid siren and church bells. Some separatists melt into the crowds, taking off their uniforms.

And at the barricades, the most frequent answer as to why the gunmen have gone is: "We don't have guns. We are peaceful people."

UPDATE: 5/6/14 3:10 PM ET

This is what Donetsk looked like today

UPDATE: 5/6/14 2:50 PM ET

Disturbing reports from Donetsk

Kyiv Post's Christopher Miller reported:

With guns locked and loaded, about 40 heavily armed pro-Russian rebels in two trucks descended upon a military academy in Donetsk on May 6, temporarily blocking access to the building and threatening to engage with anyone who might pose a threat to them.

'If there is any provocation against us, first shoot in the air, and then at them,' one rebel commander was heard shouting to his men at the military academy.

Read the full account on Kyiv Post.

And BuzzFeed's Mike Giglio filed this from Donetsk:

"The threats were one more sign of darkening times: Those activists, journalists and politicians who opposed the separatists in and around Donetsk were increasingly faced with beatings, abductions and even attempted assassinations in what felt like a concerted push to drive them out. Some used the word 'hunted' to describe their ordeal, and each day brought word that more had fled."

Giglio's report details how the war (and paranoia) has already begun for those who supported the pro-Ukrainian side. Many have reportedly fled death threats.

Which raises the question: What happens if/when the Donbass region holds its referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia (currently planned for May 11)? Who will be left to vote?

UPDATE: 5/6/14 2:20 PM ET

Police in Odessa were complicit in Friday's clashes, says Ukraine's prosecutor general

The violence that killed at least 46 people in the Ukrainian city of Odessa was planned in advance, Ukraine's acting Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitsky said, according to the Kyiv Post.

"Today, we can say that this was a planned event," Makhnitsky told Channel 5. "We can currently speak not only of the inactivity [of the police], but of their complicity."

He said, "There was an agreement between the police and bandits."

On Monday, Ukraine's interior minister said a new special forces unit had replaced the leadership of the police force in Odessa.

According to Reuters, he said the new Odessa force was based on "civil activists who wanted to help the Black Sea city "in these difficult days."

Policemen stand guard outside the regional state administration building in the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa on May 5, 2014, expecting a protest rally of pro-Russian activists.

UPDATE: 5/6/14 2:10 PM ET

US dismisses secession referendum as bogus

Reuters — The United States condemned on Tuesday a referendum on secession planned by pro-Russian separatists for Sunday as "bogus" and an "illegal effort to further divide Ukraine."

"This is the Crimea playbook all over again. No civilized nation will recognize the results. And if Russia takes the next step to re-enact its illegal Crimea annexation in eastern or southern Ukraine and sends more forces over the border, harsh US and EU sanctions will follow," US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

The referendum planned by separatists in the eastern Donbass region is similar to the one that preceded Russia's annexation of Crimea. Psaki called it "a bogus independence referendum," adding, "We flatly reject this illegal effort to further divide Ukraine."

UPDATE: 5/6/14 11:15 AM ET

In Kramatorsk and Odessa, grief and anger as Ukrainians bury their dead

Reuters — Both sides have been burying their dead as Ukraine slides further towards war, with supporters of Russia and of a united Ukraine accusing each other of tearing the country apart.

Tuesday morning was quieter than past days in eastern and southern Ukraine, but the deadliest week since the separatist uprising began has transformed the conflict, hardening positions and leaving little room for peace.

In Kramatorsk, a separatist-held town in the east that saw an advance by Ukrainian troops at the weekend, the coffin of 21-year-old nurse Yulia Izotova was carried through streets stilled by barricades of tires and tree trunks on Monday. Scattered red carnations traced the route.

At the Holy Trinity Church, seven priests led mourners in prayer for a woman killed by large caliber bullets, which the townsfolk believe were fired by Ukrainian troops.

In Odessa, a previously peaceful, multi-ethnic Black Sea port where more than 40 people were killed on Friday in the worst day of violence since a February revolt toppled Ukraine's pro-Russian president, pall-bearers carried Andrey Biryukov's open casket from a van to the street corner where he was shot.

A pro-Ukrainian activist, Biryukov, 35, was killed during a day that began with hundreds of pro-Russian sympathizers armed with axes, chains and guns attacking a Ukrainian march, and ended later that night with the pro-Russians barricaded inside a building that was set on fire, killing dozens.

A small crowd of about 50 people stood around the body, covering it with carnations and roses. A Ukrainian flag fluttered in the wind, and a patriotic song about dead heroes was played from a sound system.

Relatives wept and a young woman fell on her knees crying loudly. The corner where the man died was decorated with flowers and small Ukrainian flags.

"The government has failed to protect its own people. The police have failed miserably," said Nikita, a grizzled 56-year-old with a Ukrainian yellow and blue arm-band.

Sergei, in his 40s, who also came to mourn, said violence "was imported to Odessa."

"We were proud of Odessa as a unique place where people used to live in peace, regardless of their beliefs and religion and race," he said. "Now this is all gone."

UPDATE: 5/6/14 10:30 AM ET

Caption contest

Let's hope this picture isn't a metaphor for how things went at the Council of Europe meeting in Vienna:

UPDATE: 5/6/14 9:30 AM ET

Could Moscow be setting up a reason to question the legitimacy of Ukraine's elections?

Reuters — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday it would be "unusual" to hold a presidential election in Ukraine while the army was being deployed against Ukrainians.

Lavrov's comments, after a meeting of the Council of Europe human rights organization in Vienna, suggested Moscow could be preparing a reason to question the legitimacy of the May 25 election if it is unhappy with the outcome.

"Holding elections at a time when the army is deployed against part of the population is quite unusual," he told a news conference in response to a question about whether Moscow would recognize the vote. "We will see how this process ends."

Lavrov said Ukraine should agree a new constitution to define presidential powers before people cast their ballots.

Asked about a German proposal to hold a second international meeting on Ukraine, Lavrov said the agreements reached during the first round of talks in Geneva had still not been implemented.

"Meeting in the same format, when the opposition to the current Ukrainian regime will be absent at the negotiating table, would hardly add (anything)," he said.

"One could possibly do it but we would be going round in circles, again saying that one needs to carry out what we had agreed on. And it's the Ukrainians who should deliver, both the regime and those opposing it."

UPDATE: 5/6/14 7:15 AM ET

30 ministers meet in Vienna over Ukraine, while UN chief offers his mediation services

Agence France-Presse — Diplomatic efforts to contain the crisis tearing Ukraine apart intensified Tuesday as government forces stepped up an offensive around Slovyansk.

Thirty foreign ministers — including from Russia and Ukraine — were set to discuss the escalating violence at a Council of Europe meeting in Vienna, while UN chief Ban Ki-moon offered to help negotiate a solution before the crisis "spins out of control."

As diplomats scrambled to dial down the tensions in the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War, the UN chief offered himself as a personal go-between.

Speaking exclusively to AFP in Abu Dhabi, Ban offered "to provide my own role if necessary" before the crisis "spins out of control and creates huge consequences beyond anybody's control."

Ban's offer came as European leaders, fearing all-out civil war on their eastern flank, launched a new peace bid, urging a negotiated solution.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Deshchytsia have arrived in the Austrian capital for Tuesday's Council of Europe meeting which will also include Britain's William Hague.

Hague will travel to Kyiv later in the day where parliament will discuss the crisis in a closed-door meeting.

In Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry is to hold talks with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Didier Burkhalter, is due in Moscow on Wednesday.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was in talks with Russia, the United States, the European Union and the OSCE to hold a second peace conference in Geneva.

UPDATE: 5/6/14 6:50 AM ET

Some forces in eastern Ukraine are out of both Kyiv and Moscow's control, says German FM

Reuters — Ukraine is close to war, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned in interviews published in four European newspapers on Tuesday.

Dozens of people died in the Ukrainian city of Odessa last week when pro-Russian militants clashed with their opponents, and Kyiv forces are fighting separatists who have seized control of towns in the east of the country.

"The bloody pictures from Odessa have shown us that we are just a few steps away from a military confrontation," Steinmeier told El Pais, Le Monde, La Repubblica and Gazeta Wyborcza. He added that the conflict had taken on an intensity "that a short time ago we would not have considered possible."

Steinmeier's ministry also warned Germans on Tuesday against traveling to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March, and reiterated an earlier advisory to avoid eastern areas.

"It is urgently advised to avoid traveling to Crimea," the Foreign Ministry wrote on its website. "In the German government's view, Crimea belongs to Ukraine but in actuality it is controlled by Russia. Due to the current situation German citizens can no longer be guaranteed consular services."

The ministry added that it was advising against any traveling to eastern and southern Ukraine. It also urged German citizens to leave those regions and said journalists were particularly endangered.

"The situation in the east and south of Ukraine is extremely tense at the moment," it said. "There are an increased number of armed occupations of state buildings .... there have been incidents of foreigners being held.

In a television interview late on Monday, Steinmeier said he feared that neither Russia nor Ukraine could now control forces unleashed as fighting intensified around the pro-Russian stronghold of Slovyansk.

"I'm convinced we are struggling against a situation that has taken on a dynamic of its own. There are groups in eastern Ukraine that are not listening to either Kyiv ... or Moscow."

UPDATE: 5/6/14 6:40 AM ET

More submarines and warships for the Black Sea fleet

Reuters — Russia will beef up its Black Sea fleet this year with new submarines and warships, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying on Tuesday, following the annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

New air defense and marine infantry units would also be deployed at the fleet's bases, which include Sevastopol in Crimea.

"New submarines will join the Black Sea fleet, as well as new-generation surface ships, this year. All this requires much attention from us," Interfax news agency quoted Shoigu as saying.

Shoigu said the fleet would receive funding of 86.7 billion rubles ($2.43 billion) by 2020.

The fleet, which analysts say comprises around 40 frontline warships, is seen as a guarantor of Russia's southern borders and a platform for projecting power into the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March sparked the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War. President Vladimir Putin said last month that Russia's action over Crimea was partly a response to NATO expansion in Eastern Europe.

Russia also feared Ukraine's new government would cancel a lease allowing the fleet to stay until 2042.

UPDATE: 5/6/14 6:30 AM ET

Slovyansk casualties more than 30, says Ukraine's government

Reuters — More than 30 pro-Russian separatists were killed in fighting near the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Tuesday.

"We estimate that the terrorists lost more than 30 people," Avakov wrote on Facebook.

Pro-Russian rebels ambushed Ukrainian forces on Monday, triggering fierce fighting near Slovyansk. Avakov said four Ukrainian servicemen had been killed and 20 wounded.

The pro-Russian rebels said on Monday four of their number had been killed in the fighting.

UPDATE: 5/5/14 5:10 PM ET

Signing off

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UPDATE: 5/5/14 5:00 PM ET

'The more blood that flows, the less the chance of a united Ukraine'

Reuters — If Kramatorsk needed a martyr, it has one now — a 21-year-old nurse called Yulia Izotova, killed on Saturday, buried on Monday.

"The driver thought she was unconscious," said her best friend, Lena. "But when they reached the hospital, she was pulled out dead."

Shot in the back by what friends and relatives say were large-caliber bullets fired from a column of Ukrainian armor as she travelled by car after dark between rebel-held towns, Izotova joins a small but growing list of dead in this mining region's month-old uprising.

Though in life she played no active role in the conflict, her open coffin was brought to Kramatorsk's central square and laid at the foot of the town hall, occupied by gunmen who say they would rather secede from Ukraine than live under a government in Kyiv that has chosen Europe over Russia.

Hundreds gathered to pay their respects, in a scene that recalled late February in Kyiv, when coffin after coffin was borne through a crowd on the Maidan, the capital's central square, carrying the victims of gunbattles with police defending Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.

In Kyiv, the crowd bayed for revenge, and Yanukovych fled the next day. Ukraine looked westward. But little more than two months later, this country of 45 million is sliding towards civil war, the cycle of violence fast extinguishing any hope of a political resolution.

"They shoot at us. Why? Because we don't want to live with fascists?" asked 58-year-old passport photographer Sergei Forminski, standing with his wife among the mourners. "We're not slaves; we kneel to no one."

The coffin was carried through streets stilled by barricades of tires and trees, into the town's Holy Trinity Church, where seven priests led the many mourners in prayer. Scattered red carnations traced the route.

Opinions as to what should happen here vary, more than the catch-all terms "pro-Russian" and "separatist" might suggest.

But if some were once preaching moderation, for a future still within Ukraine, with each death they are fast being drowned out by those calling for this southeastern steel and coal belt to break away altogether after a referendum on Sunday that is being organized by anti-Kyiv activists.

Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in the regional capital, was not wrong when, in the wake of a Ukrainian military advance against the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk last week, he warned: "The more blood that flows, the less the chance of a united Ukraine."

UPDATE: 5/5/14 12:15 PM ET

Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk

UPDATE: 5/5/14 12:00 PM ET

Russia tells Kyiv to come to its senses

Reuters — Russia called on the Kyiv government on Monday to stop using armed force against its people and enter talks aimed at resolving the Ukraine crisis.

The foreign ministry said in a statement that a humanitarian crisis was looming in blockaded towns in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been trying to dislodge pro-Russian separatists who have occupied official buildings.

It called on the Kyiv authorities "to come to their senses, stop the bloodshed, withdraw forces and finally sit down at the negotiating table to begin a normal dialogue about ways to resolve the political crisis."

UPDATE: 5/5/14 11:30 AM ET

Who are the anti-Kyiv separatists?

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted that Russian forces had been present in Crimea — the so-called "little green men."

Since the unrest began in eastern Ukraine, all sides have disputed the real identity of the armed militias who occupied buildings in cities like Donetsk, Luhansk and Slovyansk. The authorities in Kyiv say they're Moscow's operatives, while Russia insists they are local Ukrainians.

The New York Times' C.J. Chivers and Noah Sneider went to the eastern city of Slovyansk to get a closer look:

The rebels of the 12th Company appear to be Ukrainians but, like many in the region, have deep ties to and affinity for Russia. They are veterans of the Soviet, Ukrainian or Russian Armies, and some have families on the other side of the border. Theirs is a tangled mix of identities and loyalties.

Further complicating the picture, while the fighters share a passionate distrust of Ukraine’s government and the Western powers that support it, they disagree among themselves about their ultimate goals.

Read 'Behind the Masks in Ukraine, Many Faces of Rebellion'

UPDATE: 5/5/14 11:10 AM ET

'War is being waged on us'

Ukraine is already at war, if you ask its acting president.

Oleksander Turchynov said roadblocks were set up around Kyiv to guard against "provocative" actions on May 9 from Russian operatives, according to Agence France-Presse. That's the day when Ukraine celebrates victory during WWII.

"War is in effect being waged against us, and we must be ready to repel this aggression," Turchynov said. Ukraine's armed forces are already on combat alert, and Kyiv reintroduced the draft last week to build up the strength of its military.

UPDATE: 5/5/14 10:40 AM ET

The mob rules

Reuters — His mistake was to run from the advancing mob, and that was enough for the men and women carrying clubs, knives and swords through Donetsk's Lenin district.

They set upon him. Beaten and bloodied, the unidentified man was saved, in a manner, by militiamen who dragged him through the crowd under metal shields, bundled him into the back of a car and drove him off at speed to an unknown fate.

No one could say what he'd done; he was a "provocateur," a term used by both sides of Ukraine's increasingly bitter divide to describe the other, but in the rebel-held east it means only one thing — a supporter of the "Fascist" government in Kyiv.

It was a brutal picture of the mob-rule that has descended upon this city in eastern Ukraine, the biggest to fall to an armed uprising against a government in Kyiv that wants to take the country west. Kyiv blames Russia for fomenting the violence, a charged denied by Moscow.

Read more from 'In eastern Ukraine, the mob rules'

UPDATE: 5/5/14 10:30 AM ET

Another helicopter shot down

Reuters — A Ukrainian military helicopter was shot down near the pro-Russian rebel-controlled eastern town of Slovyansk on Monday, but the pilots survived, the Defense Ministry said.

The helicopter, an Mi-24, which came under fire from a heavy machine gun, crashed into a river. The ministry said in a statement the crew were evacuated to a nearby camp but did not give any detail of their condition.

At least three other helicopters have been shot down by pro-Russian rebels since uprisings began in eastern parts of the country early this year.

UPDATE: 5/5/14 10:25 AM ET

We do not think this word means what you think it means

No one is exempt from being called a Nazi:

UPDATE: 5/5/14 9:25 AM ET

Four fatalities for Ukrainian forces

Reuters — Four Ukrainian paramilitary police were killed in fighting on Monday with pro-Russian separatists near the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk, the Interior Ministry said, in renewed violence Kyiv is struggling to stop across the east.

The sound of an air siren could be heard in the center of Slovyansk and a church bell rang in the main square. Gunfire seemed to be coming closer to the center of the town.

Cars ferried the wounded from the sites of the clashes.

There were fatalities on the side of the separatists though no figures were available.

One civilian woman was hit in the head by a bullet, her sister told Reuters at the hospital. Her husband sat next to his sister and wept.

UPDATE: 5/5/14 6:30 AM ET

Gunfire and fatalities in on the outskirts of Slovyansk

Reuters — Pro-Russian separatists ambushed Ukrainian forces on Monday, triggering heavy fighting on the outskirts of the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov was quoted as saying.

A Reuters correspondent said at least two separatist armored personnel carriers and several rebels fled the area, where almost continuous gunfire had been heard since morning.

The gunfire seemed closer to Slovyansk, in eastern Ukraine, than a day earlier.

"In the morning, a squad in the anti-terrorist operation was hit by an ambush by terrorist groups. They are using heavy weapons," Avakov was quoted as saying by Interfax-Ukraine news agency near Slovyansk.

He said there were fatalities on the Ukrainian side but did give a figure.

UPDATE: 5/5/14 6:15 AM ET

A new special forces unit for Odessa

Reuters — Ukraine's Interior Minister said on Monday he had drafted a new special forces unit into the southern port city of Odessa after the "outrageous" failure of police to tackle pro-Russian separatists in a weekend of violence that killed dozens.

The violence in Odessa, a southwestern port with a broad ethnic mix from Russians and Ukrainians to Georgians and Tatars, is seen as something as a turning point in Kyiv; a warning of dangers if rebellion spreads beyond the Russian-speaking east.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the new Odessa force was based on "civil activists who wanted to help the Black Sea city "in these difficult days." The entire leadership of the local police had been sacked and could face criminal action.

The Odessa violence was the deadliest since Moscow-oriented president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia in February and pro-Russian militants launched uprisings in the industrial east.

"The police in Odessa acted outrageously, possibly in a criminal fashion," Avakov said on his Facebook page. "The 'honor of the uniform' will offer no cover."

Ukrainian leaders have made it clear they see the police force across wide areas of the country as unreliable in the face of rebellion they say is backed by Moscow and led on the ground by Russian special forces. The units Avakov referred to emerged partly from the uprising against Yanukovych early this year.

That could fuel anger among the government's opponents, who accuse it of promoting "fascist" militant groups, such as Right Sector, which took part in the Kyiv uprising over the winter.

Loss of control of Odessa would be a huge economic and political blow for Kyiv, which accuses Moscow of scheming to dismember Ukraine, a country the size of France.

Odessa, a city of a million people, with a grand history as the cosmopolitan southern gateway for the tsars' empire, has two ports, including an oil terminal, and is a key transport hub.

It would also heighten Western concern that Ukraine, already culturally divided between an industrial, Russian-speaking east and a more westward looking west, could disintegrate.

UPDATE: 5/4/14 6:30 PM ET

Another round of violence in Odessa, as Ukraine tips toward war

Agence France-Presse — Thousands of pro-Russian protesters assaulted Odessa's police headquarters Sunday, days after deadly clashes and a fire there killed dozens of their comrades in what Kyiv charged was a Russian plot to "destroy Ukraine."

The unrest in the southern port city threatened a new front in the Ukrainian government's battle against pro-Moscow militants, with an expanded military operation under way in the east against gunmen holding more than a dozen towns.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russia was executing a plan "to destroy Ukraine and its statehood."

He was in Odessa to observe mourning for the 42 people who died there in clashes and the fire on Friday — most of them pro-Russian militants.

The unrest shaking the Black Sea city of one million people, he said, aimed "to repeat in Odessa what is happening in the east of the country."

In an effort to head off any retribution on the streets for Friday's bloodshed, Yatsenyuk sacked Odessa's police chiefs and ordered an inquiry.

The police in the headquarters managed to calm the crowd outside by releasing 67 pro-Russian militants they were holding, nearly half the 150 total who had been arrested in Friday's clashes. One person, though, was reported wounded by gunshot in the city.

Although Moscow has admitted sending troops into Crimea ahead of annexing the strategic peninsula in March, it denies having a hand in Ukraine's unrest in the east and in Odessa.

Instead it blames the Kyiv government and its Western backers for the carnage.

Moscow has also demanded a halt to the Ukrainian military offensive in the east, saying it has received "thousands" of calls for help from the population there for it to intervene.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops have been parked on Ukraine's border for two months, ready for an invasion Russian President Vladimir Putin says he has a right to launch — but "hopes" he won't have to.

But Ukrainian officials have pushed on with the operation, determined to crush the pro-Kremlin rebels.

Late Sunday, a spokeswoman for rebels in the insurgent-controlled bastion of Slovyansk said "the town is completely surrounded."

AFP confirmed that, observing seven armored vehicles blocking the last main route out, the road to the regional hub of Donetsk.

Ukrainian authorities have already put all armed forces on "combat alert" and brought back conscription as the risk of invasion looms.

The three-day death toll from the eastern offensive meanwhile stood at 10 at least — half of them servicemen — as soldiers confronted gunmen in towns around Slovyansk.

AFP reporters near the eastern town of Kostyantynivka saw a pro-Russian checkpoint abandoned and smoldering while barricades were hastily erected in the center.

Rebels defending Kostyantynivka told AFP there had been fighting overnight near the town's television tower.

In nearby Kramatorsk, pro-Russians were holed up in the town hall while burned-out trolley buses and minivans blocked off streets in the city center.

But in the center of besieged Slovyansk — whose outskirts saw fierce gun battles on Saturday — the situation remained relatively calm. Some of its 160,000 citizens reported increasing difficulty obtaining basic foodstuffs.

In annexed Crimea there were clashes between police and 2,000 pro-Kyiv Tatars demonstrating against Russia's refusal to allow their leader Mustafa Dzhemilev into the peninsula.

The spreading violence eclipsed the small nugget of positive news in Ukraine on Saturday: the release of seven European OSCE inspectors, who were all safely home after a Russian envoy went to Slovyansk to organize their release.

Ukraine's violence sparked a new round of accusations and counter-accusations between the United States and Moscow as relations between the Cold War foes continued to suffer.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called his US counterpart John Kerry to demand Washington use its influence over Kyiv to stop what he called Ukraine's "war against its own people."

Lavrov warned that the military operations were pushing the former Soviet republic towards a "fratricidal conflict" and urged a greater mediating role for the OSCE.

Moscow has pronounced dead an accord struck last month in Geneva to defuse the crisis.

And it has dismissed Ukraine's plans for a presidential election on May 25 as "absurd" given the country's spiral into conflict.

Its stance has opened up the possibility that the West could impose its toughest punishment yet on Russia over the crisis.

US President Barack Obama said he would impose broader sanctions against Moscow if it destabilized its neighbor ahead of the election.

Kerry stressed to Lavrov the "possibility or the reality of sectoral sanctions" targeting specific areas of the already weakening Russian economy.

He hailed the release of the OSCE inspectors as a welcome step, but stressed that others needed to be taken "to de-escalate the situation."

As Moscow and Washington traded barbs about interference in Ukraine, Germany's Bild am Sonntag weekly alleged that dozens of US intelligence agents were advising the Kyiv authorities, citing unnamed Germany security sources.

The separatists in Ukraine were preparing their own spoiler of the May 25 election by moving ahead with plans to hold an independence referendum next Sunday.

The presidential vote was called by Ukraine's new leaders shortly after the ouster of pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych in February, the culmination of months of pro-EU protests.

UPDATE: 5/4/14 9:25 AM ET

Read more

Read our previous live blog to catch up on events that happened in Ukraine last week.

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