Ukraine's president-elect vows to punish pro-Russian rebels (LIVE BLOG)

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

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UPDATE: 5/30/14 4:15 PM ET

Obama will meet Poroshenko

Reuters — President Barack Obama will meet with Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko in Warsaw on Wednesday, part of a European visit aimed at reassuring allies that are nervous about Russian aggression in Ukraine, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Friday.

UPDATE: 5/30/14 12:25 PM ET

How the 'People's Republic of Donetsk' looks now

Yesterday, the Vostok Battalion cleared out pro-Russian separatists from the regional administration building they had occupied for 2 months in central Donetsk.

This is what it looks like today:

Pro-Russian rebels carry their belongings as they leave the regional administration offices in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on May 30, 2014.
Pro-Russian activists wave to passersby from the back of a truck as they leave the regional administration offices in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on May 30, 2014.
Pro-Russian rebels sit at the back of a truck as they leave the regional administration offices in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on May 30, 2014.
A tractor dismantles a barricade put in place by activists from the People's Republic of Donetsk, outside the regional administration offices in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on May 30, 2014.
A school graduate poses in front of a barricade outside the regional administration offices in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on May 30.

UPDATE: 5/30/14 11:40 AM ET

Another team of OSCE monitors have been detained north of Luhansk

Reuters — Another team of monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has been detained in eastern Ukraine, the Vienna-based OSCE said on Friday.

The OSCE said the team of four international monitors and a Ukrainian language assistant was stopped in the town of Severodonetsk, 60 miles north of Luhansk by armed men.

It said it had lost contact with the team at around 7 p.m. on Thursday.

The detained team from the OSCE's special monitoring mission is in addition to another team still missing in the east of the country, which was last heard from on the evening of May 26, the OSCE said.

A rebel leader had said on Thursday that team was likely to be released soon.

The OSCE has sent the so-called special monitors to observe compliance with an international accord for de-escalating a crisis in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have seized control of strategic points in several towns.

There are currently 248 international members of the OSCE's special monitoring mission in Ukraine, with another 23 due to be deployed on Friday and a target of 300 by the end of June, an OSCE spokesman said.

The OSCE — Europe's security watchdog, of which both Russia and Ukraine are members — also has teams of military observers in Ukraine led by the German Defense Ministry, and election observers who monitored last weekend's presidential vote.

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

Russia detains four men, accuses them of bomb plot

The fighting in eastern Ukraine led to authorities in Kyiv accusing Russia of having a hand in fighting — allegations that have more and more proof (see below).

But Russia today made accusations against Ukrainian individuals, saying they were plotting to carry out attacks in Crimea — which belonged to Ukraine until it was annexed by Russia in March following a hastily planned referendum. Here is Reuters report:

Russia's Federal Security Service has detained four men it says are members of the Ukrainian nationalist organization Right Sector on suspicion of plotting bomb attacks in Crimea, a charge denied by the group.

The four are suspected of involvement in two arson attacks in April on the Black Sea peninsula, annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March, the FSB said in a statement on Friday.

It said the suspects were also part of a group accused of plotting two bomb attacks during World War Two commemorations in Crimea in early May although neither took place, and that explosive materials and arms had been found in their homes.

Right Sector played a role in protests that toppled Ukraine's Russia-friendly president in February, and the group is often a target of accusations by Russian officials and media.

In Kyiv, the group said it was checking whether those detained had any link to the group and dismissed the allegation that it was involved in such attacks as "a blatant lie."

"Right Sector operates according to the Ukrainian law," said Artem Skoropadsky, Right Sector's press secretary. "Right Sector has never planned, is not planning and never will plan terrorist acts."

UPDATE: 5/30/14 11:00 AM ET

US confirms Russia is actually withdrawing troops from the Ukraine border

Reuters — Russia has withdrawn most of its troops from the Ukrainian border, but seven battalions, amounting to thousands of men, remain, a US defense official said on Friday.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in Singapore to attend a weekend security conference, has called the withdrawal of thousands of Russian troops from the border a promising sign, but said all troops positioned there earlier this year needed to be moved back.

The defense official said that most of the troops had been pulled back.

"The majority have gone," he told reporters. "But seven battalions remain." The official said he had no figure for the number of troops that had withdrawn. "But ... thousands still remain," he said.

Hagel, speaking earlier on the plane taking him on a trip to Asia and Europe, said it was known that "thousands of Russian troops have been pulled back and are moving away. We also know that there are still thousands of Russian troops still there that have not yet moved.

"Any time you are moving troops away and equipment and assets away, that’s promising, but they are not where they need to be and won’t be until all of their troops that they positioned along that border a couple of months ago are gone."

UPDATE: 5/30/14 10:20 AM ET

The open secret: There are Russians fighting in Ukraine

On Thursday, one of the separatists' leaders said 33 of the more than 40 rebels killed on Monday were Russian nationals.

As Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk wrote, "It was less like a subtle hint and more like a sledgehammer to the face."

Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” told reporters, "These are people who came here to defend their brothers not for money, but for their own conscience."

A pro-Russian fighter who went by the name "Ram" told Peleschuk more about the so-called Vostok Battalion: "It's a combined unit: there are Ossets, Russians, Ukrainians, and even people from Crimea have joined."

US Secretary of State John Kerry said late Thursday that there was "evidence of Russians crossing over, trained personnel from Chechnya trained in Russia, who've come across to stir things up, to engage in fighting."

Read Peleschuk's full report from Donetsk: There are definitely Russians fighting in eastern Ukraine

These are the coffins that were prepared for the Russian fighters:

And these are the fighters from Vostok who took over a regional administration building in Donetsk that the "People's Republic of Donetsk" separatists had occupied for two months:

UPDATE: 5/30/14 10:00 AM ET

Poroshenko vows to punish rebels

Agence France-Presse — Ukraine's president-elect Petro Poroshenko vowed to punish pro-Russian rebels who downed an army helicopter in the east of the country, killing 12 troops in one of the deadliest attacks of the insurgency.

The militants shot the Mi-8 helicopter gunship out of the sky with a sophisticated surface-to-air missile Thursday, prompting the White House to say the incident raised concerns about the rebels being supplied "from the outside."

"We have to do everything we can to ensure no more Ukrainians die at the hands of terrorists and bandits. These criminal acts by the enemies of the Ukrainian people will not go unpunished," said Poroshenko, according to Ukrainian news agencies.

The Kyiv government's attention Thursday was fixed on Slovyansk — an industrial city of 120,000 mostly ethnic Russians that was the first of a dozen towns and cities seized by the rebels in response to the February ouster in Kyiv of a pro-Kremlin president.

"I just received information that near Slovyansk, the terrorists — using a Russian man-portable air defense system — shot down our helicopter," acting President Oleksander Turchynov told parliament.

Those killed included General Volodymyr Kulchytskiy, six members of the National Guard force made up of volunteers and interior ministry troops.

UPDATE: 5/29/14 5:00 PM ET

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UPDATE: 5/29/14 4:00 PM ET

Putin creates Eurasian Economic Union, but without Ukraine

Reuters — Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty with Kazakhstan and Belarus on Thursday creating a vast trading bloc which he hopes will challenge the economic might of the United States, the European Union and China. Putin denies the forging of the Eurasian Economic Union with two other former Soviet republics, coupled with Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, means he wants to rebuild a post-communist Soviet Union or as much of it as he can.

He does, however, intend the alliance, with a market of 170 million people, a combined annual GDP of $2.7 trillion and vast energy riches, to demonstrate that Western sanctions imposed over the crisis in Ukraine will not isolate Russia.

But the world's major economic powers may not be quaking in their boots.

Ukraine has snubbed the union, other ex-Soviet states are wary of joining a body that could give Moscow leverage over them again and Kazakhstan fiercely defended its sovereignty during negotiations, forcing Putin to water down his ambitions.

Months and months ago, when the Ukraine crisis was still limited to nonviolent protests in Kyiv's Independence Square, we listed the Eurasian Union as one of the reasons Russia had a stake in Ukraine. GlobalPost's Allison Jackson wrote:

"Ukraine is considered a key part of the plan because of its size, historical links with Russia and its position on the EU's frontier.

Earlier this month, the Ukrainian parliament approved a program to develop trade and economic relations with members of a customs union that includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, although whether it joins the group — seen as a precursor to the Eurasian Union— remains to be seen."

UPDATE: 5/29/14 2:45 PM ET

Kerry concerned about reports of Chechen fighters

Reuters — US Secretary of State John Kerry has raised concerns with Russia's foreign minister about reports of foreign fighters, including Chechens, crossing into Ukraine from Russia, the US State Department said on Thursday.

During a phone call on Wednesday, Kerry pressed Russia's Sergei Lavrov to end support for Ukrainian separatists and to call on them to lay down their arms, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

UPDATE: 5/29/14 1:15 PM ET

The Vostok Battalion in Donetsk

The Wall Street Journal has more details on what happened in Donetsk today:

Meanwhile, in a sign of infighting within the ranks of the rebels, dozens of armed fighters from the group that has done most of the fighting in recent days cleared out representatives of the self-declared separatist government from the regional administration building in the nearby city of Donetsk.

The gunmen, a mix of Chechens from Russia and local fighters, are part of the Vostok Battalion that has emerged in recent weeks as one of the main fighting forces in the region, where various armed groups have taken over towns and formed a loose alliance called the Donetsk People's Republic.

They entered the building at about 2 p.m. and forced everyone to leave, according to Miroslav Rudenko, a DPR leader. "It's a mystery to me what's going on," said Mr. Rudenko.

From Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk: "Vostok Battalion, made up of irregulars and freelancers — many of whom are from Russia — is seeing lots of playing time lately in Donetsk."

It's unclear when the Vostok Battalion first made an appearance in Ukraine, but Kyiv Post's Christopher Miller posted this on May 25:

And Vice reported specifically on the presence of Chechen fighters in eastern Ukraine:

But widespread reports — including several videos — have documented the presence of the Vostok Battalion, a unit of Russia's military intelligence (GRU) based in Chechnya, in Donetsk, where they reportedly participated in a deadly battle at the city's airport on May 26, which left at least 50 separatists dead.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov took to Instagram to deny the reports: "Ukrainian sources are putting out statements that some 'Chechen units' from Russia have made incursions into Donetsk."

"I officially declare that this does not correspond to the truth. There are no 'Chechen servicemen' or even 'military columns from Chechnya' in the conflict," he said. [An aside: Kadyrov called himself "Putin's footsoldier" last Sunday.]

The International Crisis Group's Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, director of the North Caucasus project, told Vice, "Vostok has not existed for a few years now. Moreover, it’s associated with Kadyrov’s long-time foes."

"Reviving Vostok as a brand could be another trick to divert attention from the incumbent Chechen authorities."

Kadyrov said any Chechens fighting in Ukraine were there in a personal capacity.

This is all slightly reminiscent of Crimea, where Russia's "little green men" aided pro-Russian militias. President Vladimir Putin denied the presence of any Russians in Crimea until after the referendum that led to Crimea's annexation by Russia in March. 

In mid-April, Putin said, "We had to take unavoidable steps so that events did not develop as they are currently developing in southeast Ukraine."

"Of course our troops stood behind Crimea's self-defense forces."

UPDATE: 5/29/14 11:50 AM ET

One pro-Russian militia kicks out another in Donetsk

We're still trying to piece together what's happening in Donetsk today. The journalists there, including Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk, were also trying to figure out events as they unfolded.

What we do know is that the Vostok Battalion, a pro-Russian militia, faced off with pro-Russian separatists who had seized a regional administration building 2 months ago under the "People's Republic of Donetsk" banner.

It then appeared the Vostok Battalion removed the barricades set up by the other separatists. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty cast it as "factional in-fighting" in a preliminary report, quoting insurgent leader Miroslav Rudenko who said, "The Vostok Battalion is removing the barricades, and I do not understand why and for what."

UPDATE: 5/29/14 11:00 AM ET

Pro-Russians confirm they've detained OSCE monitors

Four monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been missing since Monday.

On Thursday, the leader of pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern city of Slovyansk confirmed that they had been detained by his forces.

"The group of four people who went missing south of Donetsk — we know where they are, they are all fine," Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed "people's mayor" of Slovyanksk, told Interfax news agency. "We had told them not to travel anywhere for a time but these four turned out to be very keen. Of course they were detained."

This isn't the first instance of OSCE-affiliated monitors being detained by separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Earlier in May, seven international military observers linked to the OSCE were captured and held for a week before being released.

Ponomaryov said at the time, "As I promised them, we celebrated my birthday yesterday and they left. As I said, they were my guests."

UPDATE: 5/29/14 10:00 AM ET

Separatists shoot down helicopter in Slovyansk leaving 14 dead

Reuters — Pro-Russian separatists shot down a Ukrainian army helicopter on Thursday, killing 14 soldiers including a general, as government forces pressed ahead with an offensive to crush rebellions in the east.

After weeks of accusations from Kyiv of Russian involvement in the uprising, a rebel leader in the eastern city of Donetsk acknowledged that some of his fighters who died in the government offensive had been "volunteers" from Russia, saying their bodies were being returned home across the border.

In Kyiv, acting President Oleksander Turchynov said the helicopter, which had been carrying supplies in eastern Ukraine, had been brought down by anti-aircraft fire from near the town of Slovyansk, which has been under the control of separatists since early April.

It was one of the heaviest losses inflicted by the separatists on the army in two months of unrest in Ukraine's eastern regions, and followed a fierce assault by government forces in which 50 or so rebels were killed earlier this week.

"I have just received information that terrorists using Russian anti-aircraft missiles shot down our helicopter near Slovyansk. It had been ferrying servicemen for a change of duty," Turchynov told parliament.

The bodies of some of the separatists killed this week when the Ukrainian military tried to regain control of Donetsk international airport were being prepared for return to Russia on Thursday, the rebel leader said.

There are no photos of pro-Russian militants near Slovyansk from today, but this was taken on May 24, 2014, in Semyonovka, not far from the city.

In a stark admission that the rebels were being supported by Russian militia fighters, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Denis Pushilin, said: "Those who are volunteers from Russia will be taken to Russia today."

Interior minister Arsen Avakov accused the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin of being behind the airport violence. Weapons collected at the airport after the rebels were forced out by airstrikes and a paratroop assault had been brought in from Russia, he said.

"These are not our weapons — they were brought from Russia. Serial numbers, year of production, specific models ... I am publishing this photograph as proof of the aggression of the Putin regime," Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.

Kyiv's leaders have long asserted that Russia, which annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March, has fomented the separatist rebellions in the east of Ukraine with a view to bringing about dismemberment of the country.

Moscow denies this but they also allege that it is failing to stop Russian fighters from crossing the long land border into Ukraine together with truckloads of guns and live ammunition.

Defence Minister Mikhailo Koval said on Thursday: "We have put all our forces and equipment into the anti-terrorist operation. We have covered the whole state border."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday accused the West of pushing Ukraine into "the abyss of fratricidal war," and reiterated his call for an end to Kyiv's military offensive.

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