Newly sworn in Poroshenko vows to restore unity of Ukraine (LIVE BLOG)

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UPDATE: 6/7/14 5:00 PM ET

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UPDATE: 6/7/14 1:35 PM ET

Poroshenko's inugural address

The Associated Press has footage from Poroshenko's inauguration:

Here is an excerpt from Poroshenko's inaugural address, via The Kyiv Post:

"I do not want war. I do not want revenge. Even though there are great sacrifices of the people of Ukraine before my eyes.

I want peace and I will secure the unity of Ukraine. Thus, I begin my work offering a peaceful plan.

I strongly urge everyone who illegally took weapons in their hands to lay them down."

Read the full address here.

Ukraine's new President Petro Poroshenko.

Kyiv Post's Christopher Miller outlines the key points of Poroshenko's peace plan:

UPDATE: 6/7/14 11:30 AM ET

Russia demands Ukraine release two detained journalists

Agence France-Presse — Russia demanded the release of two journalists on Saturday that were detained by Ukrainian security forces at a checkpoint in the restive east of the country.

"We demand that Kyiv take immediate measures to free these Russian citizens without conditions," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

The journalists — sound operator Anton Malyshev and cameraman Andrei Sushenkov — were working for Russia's Zvezda, or Star channel which is owned by the Russian defense ministry and airs patriotic programs.

The reporters were handcuffed and questioned at a checkpoint outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk on Friday before being taken away in a helicopter, Zvezda reported.

A Ukrainian soldier searches a driver at a check-point in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk on June 6, 2014.

Ukraine's National Guard said Saturday it had detained the journalists "on suspicion of monitoring and collecting information" at the checkpoint.

The National Guard said in a statement on its website that the men were "handed over to the SBU (Ukraine's Security Service) to clarify the circumstances and purpose of their staying near the checkpoint."

The journalists were carrying press accreditation handed out by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, the National Guard said.

The Russian foreign ministry called on Ukraine to "cease lawless acts towards teams of Russian and foreign journalists and ensure safe conditions for their professional activities."

The ministry said the journalists' detention on Friday "causes bafflement" since it came as "glimmers of hope are appearing for a de-escalation of the conflict in southeastern Ukraine."

Ukrainian troops in May detained two Russian journalists from a pro-Kremlin website and television channel Life News in the same region, later claiming they were transporting anti-aircraft missiles in their cars.

The Life News reporters were freed a week later following the intervention of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The Kremlin awarded the journalists medals for valor.

UPDATE: 6/7/14 11:15 AM ET

Kerry hopes for a breakthrough

Agence France-Presse — US Secretary of State John Kerry Saturday voiced hope that there would be a breakthrough on ending the Ukraine crisis, enabling Washington to avoid imposing new sanctions against Russia.

"I hope that in the next few days we can see some steps taken that will reduce the tensions ...I'm confident there are ways forward, we look for Russia's help and our hope is that we won't have to move to more serious sanctions and other steps," he said.

UPDATE: 6/7/14 11:00 AM ET

Russia moves to reinforce its border with Ukraine

Agence France-Presse — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday ordered the border service to reinforce the state border with Ukraine, the Kremlin press service told Russian news agencies.

Putin issued the order for border guards to take all necessary measures to prevent illegal crossings, Russian news agencies reported, after Kiev admitted Thursday that three of its border posts had been seized by separatists.

UPDATE: 6/7/14 9:45 AM ET

Poroshenko: 'I don't want war'

Reuters — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called in his inaugural speech on Saturday for separatists in the east of the country to lay down their arms, and said he would guarantee a safe corridor for Russian fighters to go home.

"I don't want war; I don't want revenge. I want peace and I want peace to happen," Poroshenko told parliament after taking the oath.

"Please, lay down the guns and I guarantee immunity to all those who don't have bloodshed on their hands."

Ukraine's new President Petro Poroshenko looks on during a ceremony of his inauguration in Kyiv on June 7, 2014.

UPDATE: 6/7/14 9:25 AM ET

Poroshenko is sworn in

Agence France-Presse — Petro Poroshenko was sworn in as Ukraine's fifth post-Soviet president on Saturday, amid a continuing crisis with Russia.

Poroshenko, a 48-year-old billionaire who won the presidential election on May 25 with 54.7 percent of the vote, took the oath in the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv.

He vowed to maintain the unity of his country, as the east is embroiled in an uprising by pro-Russian rebels.

Speaking in parliament, Poroshenko promised the residents of the Donbass region, which is largely in rebel hands, that he would decentralize power and guarantee the free use of the Russian language.

At his inauguration, Poroshenko said there would be no compromise with Russia on his pro-European stance and the status of the Crimean peninsula.

"The Crimea has been and will remain Ukrainian," he said. "I put that clearly to the Russian leader in Normandy," he added, referring to his meeting with President Vladimir Putin at D-Day commemorations on Friday.

Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko, takes part in inaugural festivities at St. Sophia Square on June 7, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine.

UPDATE: 6/6/14 5:00 PM ET

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UPDATE: 6/6/14 4:50 PM ET

Putin and Obama's awkward meeting

UPDATE: 6/6/14 4:05 PM ET

The surreal scenes in eastern Ukraine

An armed pro-Russian militant holds hands with his girlfriend in front a barricade at a check-point in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk on June 6, 2014.
A woman and her daughter walk in front burned vehicles in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk on June 6, 2014.
Elderly people sit in front a barricade set outside the city hall seized by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk on June 6, 2014.
Young people walk past a barricade at a check-point in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk on June 6, 2014.

UPDATE: 6/6/14 2:25 PM ET

Putin, Poroshenko and Obama talked but...

This tweet from the BBC's Daniel Sandford perfectly sums up the confusing and tragic turn of events today:

UPDATE: 6/6/14 2:15 PM ET

It appears a plane has been shot down in Slovyansk

Reuters — Pro-Russian separatists shot down a Ukrainian army plane as fighting raged in the eastern town of Slovyansk on Friday, a day before the inauguration of pro-European billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine's president.

The self-appointed mayor of the city, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, said an Antonov An-30 intelligence plane had been shot down.

"The airplane was hit in the center of the city. It happened in front of my own eyes. It was a wonderful sight. The residents who saw it applauded," Ponomaryov told Reuters by telephone.

A spokesman for Ukraine's "Anti-terrorist operation" or ATO, later confirmed a plane had been shot down but said it was an An-26 transportation plane carrying humanitarian aid.

The Ukrainian army and defense ministry were not available to comment on the reports. A YouTube video purporting to be of the An-30 and posted on several local news websites showed a plane clearly heading downwards in an irregular manner.

A photographer in Slovyansk, a city of 130,000 people in the province of Donetsk bordering Russia, said she saw the plane, visibly on fire, slowly descending but did not see it crash.

Residents said the sounds of shelling reverberated around the city on Friday. One separatist in Slovyansk told Reuters there had been shooting in the city center and that there were casualties, although he did not know how many.

Pro-Russian militants run near their check-point in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk on June 6, 2014.

Resident Larissa Akincheva said she stayed away from her work as a store clerk due to the heavy shelling.

"Today I didn't go out at all. I hear the explosions, the shelling. They have been firing all day," Akincheva, 50, said by telephone. "You could hear the planes circling overhead, I don't know if they were scouting or what."

There are signs that an increasing number of families are fleeing the violence in the two regions. With the Donetsk airport still closed after heavy fighting almost two weeks ago, people are taking to their cars and driving to the border.

At a small border crossing in Izvaryne about 70 kilometers southeast of Luhansk, a queue of more than forty cars inched along the hot sun-warmed tarmac toward the Russian border.

"It is the only open border post on the southern part of Luhansk," a young border guard said, without giving his name because he was not authorized to speak to media. He said some four other nearby border posts were closed.

Pedestrians cross the Ukrainian-Russian border at the Ukrainian check-point of Izvarino, in the Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine, on June 6, 2014.

UPDATE: 6/6/14 1:55 PM ET

Luhansk's residents flee fighting, and crime is rampant

Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty reported that residents who feared getting caught in the crossfire between Ukrainian soldiers and rebels have starting leaving the eastern city of Luhansk.

"The fear has grown as rumors swirl around the city that the Ukrainian Air Force could be preparing to bomb separatist strongholds downtown. On June 3, air-raid sirens went off in the city. In some offices people were allowed to leave work early to race home," RFERL reported.

The scale of the fighting, which isn't being as widely reported as the last few weeks, has residents concerned that "neither separatists nor soldiers are ready to spare civilians or their homes."

A power vacuum has developed in Luhansk, since separatists took over the regional administration building late in April and intimidated elected officials into silence, RFERL reported.

"The police, who maintain routine patrols, do not intervene when masked and armed separatists abduct their targets and take them to their headquarters, even in broad daylight."

The full RFERL report paints a grim picture of how life has changed for civilians in eastern Ukraine since the beginning of the crisis.

Below are pictures of civilians leaving Luhansk:

People walk on a platform of a railway station in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa after arriving by train from the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk on June 6, 2014.
Children get on a bus outside the railway station in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa after arriving by train from the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk on June 6, 2014. 407 children from various orphanages of the Luhansk region arrived to the Black Sea city.

UPDATE: 6/6/14 1:25 PM ET

Putin's message after meeting Ukraine's Poroshenko

Reuters — Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that he welcomed plans put forward by Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko, with whom he had a brief initial meeting earlier, to stop the violence in Ukraine.

However, he also said Ukraine must stop what he called a "punitive" military operation in its southeast region and warned Russia would retaliate with measures to protect its economy if Kyiv signed an association pact with the European Union.

UPDATE: 6/6/14 12:35 PM ET

Obama urges Putin to recognize Ukraine's newly elected leader

Reuters — US President Barack Obama urged Russia's Vladimir Putin during a brief informal meeting in France on Friday to seize the opportunity to ease tensions in Ukraine after the election of Petro Poroshenko as president, a White House official said.

"President Obama made clear that de-escalation depends upon Russia recognizing President-elect Poroshenko as the legitimate leader of Ukraine, ceasing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and stopping the provision of arms and material across the border," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters with Obama for D-Day commemorations in France.

"If Russia does take this opportunity to recognize and work with the new government in Kyiv, President Obama indicated that there could be openings to reduce tensions," he added.

UPDATE: 6/6/14 12:15 PM ET

Ukraine closes eight checkpoints along its border with Russia

Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk reports:

MOSCOW, Russia — Ukraine’s border service announced on Friday it had closed eight checkpoints along its porous eastern border with Russia, highlighting Kyiv’s increasingly fragile grasp over its eastern frontier under the weight of rebel attacks.

The move was aimed at “preventing threats to the lives and health of the local population,” according to a statement posted to its website, and it follows a string of recent successful rebel assaults aimed at commandeering the border.

It also arrives amid claims by Ukrainian officials that a steady influx of fighters and supplies from Russia has fed the violent insurgency in the east, a statement the Kremlin disputes.

But both rebel leaders and volunteers themselves have recently freely admitted — including to GlobalPost — that fighters from across Russia have traveled to eastern Ukraine to take up arms against the military.

Pro-Russian armed militants stand guard at a barricade in front of a regional state building seized by separatists, in the Ukrainian city of Luhansk on June 2, 2014.

In the past several days alone, separatists have staged brazen raids on bases in the Luhansk Region — where the rebel leadership has declared a “People’s Republic of Luhansk” — and reportedly forced guards into abandoning several of them.

Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service said Friday it had fought off a separatist attack late Thursday night at a border crossing in the neighboring Donetsk Region, in which a number of rebel vehicles were destroyed.

The developments unfold as Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, met on the sidelines of a D-Day commemoration ceremony in Normandy on Friday and agreed on the need to speed up the peace process.

“During the brief conversation, both Putin and Poroshenko spoke in favor of the soonest possible end to the bloodshed in southeastern Ukraine as well as the combat actions of both sides,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Russian news agencies reported.

Poroshenko, who will be sworn in on Saturday, has promised a swifter and more effective military operation — which Kyiv has pitched as an "anti-terror" operation — against the rebels.

But that goal has so far proven elusive, especially after an alleged air strike on the separatist-controlled Luhansk regional administration building earlier this week killed eight civilians and strengthened rebels’ resolve.

Ukrainian officials blamed the attack on a botched attempt by rebels to shoot down a fighter jet.

The increased violence has spurred Russia to call for a humanitarian corridor, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev claiming on Thursday that thousands of civilians had flocked to Russia.

Ukrainian officials, however, disputed that claim, saying no such humanitarian crisis exists.

Poroshenko will likely outline his plan for calming the crisis in eastern Ukraine in his inaugural address on Saturday.

UPDATE: 6/6/14 11:25 PM ET

Meanwhile, in eastern Ukraine...

Reuters — Pro-Russian separatists operating from the grounds of a church in the eastern city of Slovyansk killed a member of the Ukrainian interior ministry's special forces and seriously wounded two others in a mortar attack on Friday, the ministry said.

Slovyansk has been at the heart of a two-month insurgency in the Russian-speaking east by rebels opposed to the overthrow of a Moscow-leaning president and the formation in Kyiv of a pro-European government.

"One employee of the Ivano-Frankivsk special police unit and two employees were heavily injured in the attack," the ministry said in a statement on its website.

Fighting in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk has intensified since the landslide election of Petro Poroshenko as president on May 25 which followed the fall and flight of the pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych in February.

A picture taken on June 6, 2014 shows a destroyed building of the Dubrava camping in a forest not far from Stanichno-Luganskoye village, near the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk.

The new incident took place on the eve of the inauguration in Kyiv of Petro Poroshenko as president. The pro-Western businessman has promised to unveil a peace plan soon to end the rebellions in the east.

Late on Thursday, Ukrainian forces fended off an attack by separatists on a border post about 95 km (60 miles) to the east of Donetsk.

The Border Guard service said five Ukrainian personnel were wounded in Thursday's attack and, according to its "preliminary information," 15 separatists had been killed in the attack.

“They drove around us in circles shooting for about four or five hours,” said Vadim, an officer at the border post wearing a camouflage T-shirt and cap with the Ukrainian trident on it.

“They didn’t ask us to give up, lay down our weapons, or make any attempt to communicate at all. They just shot,” he said, adding he hoped reinforcements would arrive "soon." He said there were 100-150 attackers.

The rebels’ two armored personnel carriers, one of which had the name of the separatist formation "Battalion Vostok" painted on it, and a military transport vehicle covered in bullet holes stood abandoned at the checkpoint.

A spokesman for the Vostok Battalion was unavailable for comment. A spokeswoman for the separatists said she had no information about losses from the rebel side.

UPDATE: 6/6/14 10:35 AM ET

Putin and Poroshenko shake hands

Reuters — The leaders of Russia and Ukraine met on Friday for the first time since Moscow annexed Crimea as world leaders commemorated the 70th anniversary of the World War Two D-Day landings in France.

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought together Russia's Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko for a 15-minute meeting before an official lunch for visiting world dignitaries.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin seen after their lunch on June 6, 2014 in Benouville, France.

Hollande's office said the two men shook hands and agreed that detailed talks on a ceasefire between Kyiv government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine would begin within a few days.

They also discussed political steps to de-escalate the crisis including Russian recognition of Poroshenko's election as well as economic relations.

"It was a normal, serious exchange between two leaders," an official in Hollande's office said, adding that the meeting had been prepared by several days of contacts but kept secret until it happened.

"This marks tentative progress which he (Hollande) welcomes, particularly given this occasion so symbolic for peace."

The president invited Poroshenko to Normandy as his personal guest at the last minute in an effort to break the ice between Moscow and Kyiv even as fighting continues in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

World leaders and veterans earlier paid tribute to soldiers who fell in the liberation of Europe from Nazi German rule, at a series of ceremonies around the Normandy beaches where allied forces landed on June 6, 1944.

Wreaths, parades and parachute-drops honored history's largest amphibious assault, in which 160,000 US, British and Canadian troops waded ashore to confront German forces, hastening its defeat and the advent of peace in Europe.

Flanked by stooped war veterans, some in wheelchairs, US President Barack Obama joined Hollande to commemorate victory and reaffirm US-French solidarity before the 9,387 white marble headstones of fallen US soldiers at the Normandy American Cemetery.

UPDATE: 6/5/14 5:00 PM ET

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UPDATE: 6/5/14 4:00 PM ET

Russian foreign minister urges US to use its influence on Ukraine's president-elect

Reuters — The United States should press Ukraine's new leader to stop violence and talk to separatists, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday, Russian media reported.

Speaking to journalists after talks with Kerry in Paris, Lavrov said Ukraine's pro-Western government should take the first step to stop the fighting and voiced confidence its opponents in eastern Ukraine's Luhansk and Donetsk regions would follow suit.

"The first step should be a halt to the so-called counter-terrorist operation... and I am convinced that both Luhansk and Donetsk in this case would do what they have said more than once: they will be ready to cease fire and sit at the negotiating table," Lavrov said, according to Itar-Tass news agency.

"We very much hope that US influence on Ukrainian President-elect (Petro) Poroshenko will be used to stop the tension and confrontation," he was quoted as saying.

"I have no doubt that our American partners can and are influencing Poroshenko."

Western nations accuse Russia of supporting the separatists. The G7 leaders, holding a summit without Russian President Vladimir Putin, threatened on Wednesday to impose harder-hitting sanctions on Russia if it does not help restore stability to eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian militias operate at will.

Lavrov and Kerry met a day before commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which opened a second front and helped an Alliance including the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union defeat Nazi Germany in World War Two.

"Tomorrow we will have ceremonial events dedicated to the landings in Normandy and President Putin will participate," Lavrov said, according to state-run Itar-Tass.

"I think this would be a good opportunity to join forces to prevent new conflicts on the European continent, to find ways to unite our efforts to restore peace in Ukraine."

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

Is Ukraine moving closer to declaring martial law in the east?

The Kyiv Post reports that Ukraine might be moving closer to imposing martial law in the separatist east:

"Should Poroshenko decide to move forward with the plan to introduce martial law, there will be little left for him to do other than sign the declaration, since his predecessor has already laid the groundwork for him.

“[Interim President] Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the National Security and Defense Council Secretary, the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry, head of the State Border Service and head of the SBU [Security Services of Ukraine] by Friday, by tomorrow morning, to prepare their proposals for introducing martial law in these regions,” acting Presidential Chief of Staff Serhiy Pashynskiy told the Kyiv Post. “The law allows for the introduction of martial law on concrete territories.”

Read the full report here.

Ukrainian soldiers man a checkpoint near Slovyansk in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on June 4, 2014.

UPDATE: 6/5/14 1:35 PM ET

Russia's ambassador will be in Kyiv for Poroshenko's inauguration

Reuters — Russia said on Thursday its ambassador to Kyiv would attend the inauguration of Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko in spite of Moscow's harsh criticism of Ukraine's attempts to crush pro-Russian separatists.

Scores of separatist fighters and Ukrainian troops have been killed in heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine as Kyiv has intensified its "anti-terrorist operation" since Poroshenko was elected on May 25.

"Russian ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov will take part in the inauguration ceremony of Ukraine's elected president," Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told a briefing.

"He is returning to Kyiv to continue with his duties," Lukashevich added, more than three months after the envoy was recalled to Moscow in response to the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in mass protests.

It was unclear whether any other Russian officials would attend Poroshenko's inauguration ceremony on Saturday.

UPDATE: 6/5/14 1:20 PM ET

An entry point in Ukraine's border for irregular fighters?

The Daily Beast's Anna Nemtsova writes from Krasny Partizansk, a border area between Ukraine and Russia. She reports that the border crossing "is now in the hands of rebels."

"Ukrainian border guards have abandoned their posts, and there is no barrier to stop the insurgents from funneling fighters and supplies into their breakaway republics.

"Although Putin has withdrawn most of the Russian troops that had been poised on the frontier threatening a conventional invasion, the way is now open for volunteers and operatives of various stripes, along with supplies, to move freely into the country."

Read the full piece at The Daily Beast.

Pro-Russia militants guard a check-point on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on June 4, 2014.

UPDATE: 6/5/14 12:50 PM ET

A disturbing video surfaces of an execution — but is it real?

Earlier on Thursday, a disturbing but unverified video made the rounds on social media, purporting to show a separatist leader in eastern Ukraine overseeing the execution of two men. Kyiv Post's Christopher Miller writes that acting President Oleksander Turchynov's official statement on the video may point to the video actually being authentic.

In his statement, Turchynov "vowed to avenge the men's deaths and said he holds Russia's leadership responsible for their execution," according to the Kyiv Post.

The separatist leader thought to be speaking in the video is Igor Bezler, nicknamed "Bes," which means "Demon" in Russian. The two men supposedly executed are believed to be a Ukrainian activist and the head of the local Ukrainian Security Service in Artemivsk.

"For three days, the Ukrainian junta has refused to swap officers for a person they captured," the man thought to be Bezler says in the video. "I have in captivity three colonels — one of them is an SBU colonel — and three lieutenant colonels. At this moment, all agreements have been violated by the Ukrainian side. I waited for three days, but I have no more time to wait. This is why we will now shoot Misters Budiak and Vasiiushchenko."

He warns Turchynov that another pair will be shot within an hour, and two more at one and a half hours, and so on, until all the officers in captivity are dead.

Miller does point out that the video could be a mock execution.

The Interpreter's live blog has more on whether this video could be authentic or fake. No one has authenticated the video as of yet.

UPDATE: 6/5/14 12:15 PM ET

More US warships are headed to the Black Sea region, says Hagel

Reuters — The United States will strengthen its presence in the Black Sea region using part of a $1 billion fund promised to NATO allies on Russia's borders, and will continue to send warships to the area, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Romania on Thursday.

Hagel is the latest high-ranking American official to visit Europe since Russia's annexation of Crimea, as Washington looks to reassure allies jittery about Moscow's intentions in its former Cold War backyard.

The tour coincides with a visit by President Barack Obama to Poland this week, when he promised to increase military support for eastern European NATO members, including a $1 billion fund to support and train the armed forces of NATO states.

Formerly a secretive Communist state, Romania is now a member both of NATO and the European Union. Bucharest has been among the staunchest supporters of Western sanctions against Russia, has hosted joint military exercises with US forces on its soil and participated in navy drills in the Black Sea.

Hagel was on a visit to the Romanian port Constanta, which recently hosted US ships carrying out the navy exercises and where the Aegis guided missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf is currently berthed.

The $1 billion fund will allow for a "stronger presence of US ships in the Black Sea," Hagel said, adding that the presence of the Vella Gulf was an expression of Washington's commitment to regional security.

"We will sustain that tempo going forward," Hagel told reporters, referring to the rotating presence of US ships in the Black Sea since the Crimea crisis erupted.

In this US Navy handout, the guided-missile frigate USS Taylor (foreground) and the Turkish frigate TCG Turgutries conduct a tactical maneuvering exercise on May 11, 2014 in the Black Sea.

UPDATE: 6/5/14 11:40 AM ET

G7 threatens more sanctions if Russian doesn't change track on Ukraine

Seven of the world's leading industrialized nations met in Brussels over Wednesday and Thursday, and Russia was pointedly not invited. This was the first Group of Seven (G7) meeting that did not include Russia since the 1990s.

A statement released by the G7 late on Wednesday said: "We stand ready to intensify targeted sanctions and to consider significant additional restrictive measures to impose further costs on Russia should events so require."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters they could not afford "further destabilization in Ukraine."

"If we do not have progress in the questions we have to solve there is the possibility of sanctions, even heavy sanctions of phase 3 on the table," she said, referring to sanctions that would target the trade, finance and energy sectors.

Reuters has more on US President Barack Obama's comments on Thursday:

President Barack Obama said on Thursday Russian President Vladimir Putin must recognize and work with Ukraine's new government and stop "provocations" along its border, or face tougher sanctions from members of the G7 group of nations.

"We will have a chance to see what Mr. Putin does over the next two, three, four weeks, and if he remains on the current course then we’ve already indicated the kinds of actions that we’re prepared to take," Obama told at a news conference at the end of a G7 summit.

UPDATE: 6/5/14 11:00 AM ET

It's official: Boxer-turned-politician Klitschko takes his oath of office

Vitali Klitschko, the leader of Ukraine's UDAR party, took his oath of office on Thursday morning, after being elected as Kyiv's mayor.

"I, Vitali Klitschko, assuming a position of Kyiv city mayor, swear: realizing my huge responsibility, that I will faithfully serve the community of Kyiv and the Ukrainian people, strictly abide by the Constitution and laws of Ukraine, protect the rights and freedoms and legitimate interests of citizens, and honestly perform my duties," he said, according to The Kyiv Post.

Klitschko was one of the opposition leaders at the forefront of the Maidan protests in Kyiv's Independence Square. He was also a presidential candidate in Ukraine's elections until he withdrew and threw his support behind the eventual winner, Petro Poroshenko.

Vitali Klitschko takes his oath of office on June 5, 2014.

Before turning to politics, Klitschko was the World Boxing Council's reigning heavyweight champion.

Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk talked to Klitschko about his political aspirations long before the Ukraine crisis began.

You can knock on doors, stage demonstrations, and write letters, which doesn’t do anything,” Klitschko said. “Or you can enter politics and change things. I choose the second option.”

"There is a sense of weariness with the current political elite," he said last July, when ousted President Viktor Yanukovych was still in office.

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

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UPDATE: 6/4/14 3:55 PM ET

Poroshenko offers hints of his peace plan

Reuters — Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko said on Wednesday he would try to secure support at meetings with world leaders in France this week for a plan to end violence in eastern Ukraine, and may discuss the question with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Unveiling the first details of his plan after discussing it with US President Barack Obama on a visit to Poland, Poroshenko said it would involve de-centralization of power to the region, local elections, and an amnesty offer.

Ukrainian leaders have mooted similar proposals in the past but they have been quickly discarded, and failed to stem clashes between pro-Russian separatists and government forces, which have been mounting this week.

Poroshenko, Putin, Obama and most European leaders will be at commemorations in Normandy, France this week to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings during World War Two.

"As things stand now, a meeting between me and Putin is not envisaged, but I do not rule out that it could take place in one format or another," Poroshenko told a news conference in Warsaw, where he earlier had talks with Obama.

"Today I discussed with the leaders of EU states, the United States and Canada the details of the peace plan which I will propose after the inauguration," Poroshenko said, referring to his swearing-in scheduled for Saturday.

"We agreed to continue the discussions during the celebrations in Normandy."

"It will be a de-centralization of power on the Polish model, which will transfer real prerogatives to the local level. And that is very topical for our colleagues from eastern Ukraine, from Donetsk and Luhansk regions."

The amnesty would be offered to "people who did not commit crimes," he said, without elaborating.

"If these proposals are accepted, we can start dialogue."

Ukraine's government, backed by Poroshenko, is conducting a security operation to try to defeat pro-Moscow insurgents in eastern Ukraine. There has been heavy loss of life, and Russia has accused Kyiv of violating international law.

"This is our responsibility as the Ukrainian authorities to defend people, to bring peace," Poroshenko said.

Asked if the security operation would change, he told reporters: "I am not going to reveal our plan, we are discussing it now at the level of EU states, but the final discussion will take place in Normandy."

Poroshenko is in the middle of the back row.

UPDATE: 6/4/14 2:50 PM ET

The pro-Ukraine stronghold on Donetsk's doorstep

Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk traveled to the pro-Ukrainian region of Dnipropetrovsk as violence raged between pro-Russian militants and Ukrainian forces in the east.

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine — While bullets fly and artillery shells explode in parts of rebel-held eastern Ukraine, that’s not the case here in Dnipropetrovsk.

A southeastern region that borders the violence-plagued east, Dnipropetrovsk has emerged as a pro-Ukraine stronghold while a separatist insurgency rages on next door. To those familiar with Ukraine’s social and political divide, that might seem somewhat strange.

This industrialized region of roughly 3.5 million people is largely Russian-speaking, and traditionally supported ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russian Party of Regions.

It was also a prized center of the Soviet military industry, home to a key factory for which the region’s eponymous capital earned the occasional nickname “Rocket City.”

But as the separatist conflict in the neighboring region of Donetsk intensifies, it has provoked what observers here describe as a strong counter-reaction.

Just because it’s not a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism — like large parts of western Ukraine — doesn’t mean Dnipropetrovsk's locals aren’t patriotic.

“If earlier there weren’t so many [Ukrainian] flags around here, it’s because it was implied, a priori, that we’re part of Ukraine,” said Andrei Bogatyrev, a local newspaper editor.

“The question of ‘Are we Ukraine?’ was never raised before.”

Soon after one crosses from neighboring Donetsk into Dnipropetrovsk, that notion of implicitly belonging to Ukraine becomes evident.

Lampposts along a main road that leads to the regional capital are painted with the colors of Ukraine’s flag — blue and yellow — while towering billboards feature patriotic messages.

Ukrainian flags drape from buildings and hang from car antennae in the city of Dnipropetrovsk.

Around the site where a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin once stood (before being toppled earlier this year by pro-Kyiv protesters), a colorful cordon has appeared featuring a girl in traditional Ukrainian dress with the words: “I love Ukraine!”

To be sure, the patriotic displays have much to do with the post-revolutionary politics in the city, home to many of Ukraine’s most famous –– and infamous –– politicians, including former President Leonid Kuchma and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

On a side note, Tymoshenko cast her ballot in last month’s presidential election in this city.

Shortly after Yanukovych’s ouster last winter, the new Kyiv authorities installed as the region’s governor oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who’s been credited with reining in would-be separatists.

One of Kolomoisky’s more controversial methods — vilified by Russia’s state-run propaganda machine — has been to offer cash bounties for armed separatists and their weapons.

He also launched an anti-separatist police force and a local “self-defense” unit, both of which are reportedly funded in part by local businessmen.

Perhaps the most striking action Kolomoisky took — surprising in its simplicity — was to compromise by opening up a dialogue with pro-Russian elements and others displeased with the government.

Borys Filatov, a local business tycoon who now serves as a deputy to Kolomoisky, outlined that approach in an interview with the Financial Times last month.

“The communists were upset that Lenin statues were being defaced and we addressed that,” he said. “A group of ex-Soviet officers were concerned about the issue of how their version of second world war history was being challenged by Ukrainian nationalists; we gave them the opportunity to go to schools and give lectures to students.”

But even before the separatist crisis unfolded in Ukraine’s east, Dnipropetrovsk seemed unlikely to descend into the same pro-Russian frenzy.

Bogatyrev, who edits the independent Popular Newspaper, called the separatist east an “enclave” that’s long sought to pitch itself as a unique region whose decrepit factories and coalmines feed Ukraine’s budget.

The separatist movement in Donetsk and Luhansk was fueled by angry pensioners and disenfranchised, blue-collar workers.

Dnipropetrovsk, Bogatyrev pointed out, is not only better off economically than its eastern neighbors, it’s also more diverse culturally and socially.

“The basic structure of the population differs fairly significantly,” Bogatyrev said of Dnipropetrovsk.

And unlike its eastern neighbors, this region doesn’t seem to share a burning nostalgia for the USSR’s heyday.

During the months-long pro-European protests known as “Euromaidan,” activists here staged sizeable pro-Ukraine protests, some of which reportedly outnumbered the pro-Russian demonstrations that were held simultaneously.

Whether Dnipropetrovsk’s renewed patriotism is natural or state-sponsored, some locals find they’re ready to fight for the cause.

On a recent, rain-soaked afternoon, Sergei Seroklin, a 40-year-old handyman, approached a downtown recruiting station for the “territorial self-defense battalion,” eager to sign up.

The flyer posted outside guaranteed enlisted men $500 per month and officers up to $840, as well as legal support and insurance.

Interestingly, Seroklin — a stout, muscular man with military experience — says he wasn’t a particularly ardent supporter of the anti-Yanukovych demonstrations.

Nor is he a big fan of Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire chocolate magnate elected in a landslide vote last month.

But Seroklin says watching his country slide deeper into turmoil is not an option.

“I’m 40 years old now, and I’m afraid not for myself, but for the future of the country,” he said.

UPDATE: 6/4/14 1:35 PM ET

Slovyansk's residents continue to flee

Residents of eastern Ukraine's Slovyansk continued to flee the violence on Wednesday. Here is what they told Reuters:

"It's a mess," Marina, a young woman, sobbed as she clutched her husband's arm. "It's war."

Balancing his four-year-old daughter on his hip, Andrei Bander, 37, said he feared he would not be back any day soon.

"We took only what was most necessary. We are going. We don't even know where. We will head to Russia though because it's clear we need to leave Ukraine. I don't see anything good left here," he said, waiting for a taxi in the no man's land beyond the check point with only a few small bags.

"In the past few days, from 5.30 in the morning until about 1 p.m., we have been sitting in the basement. We didn't have time to have lunch or wash or anything."

While some families, mainly women and children were trying to leave, some men waited in their cars to get back to the town but were not being let through the roadblock by Ukrainian forces.

Soldiers fired warning shots in the air when one car, coming from the direction of Slovyansk, tried to drive up to the check point.

"My wife and two small children are there, but I can't get back to them," said a resident who gave his name as Sasha, 31.

These pictures were shot in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which has also seen fighting in recent days:

Children and their mothers leave the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on June 4, 2014 for their safety.
Children leaving the city of Donetsk on June 4, 2014.

UPDATE: 6/4/14 12:25 PM ET

NATO sees Russia's hand in Ukraine unrest

Reuters — NATO's top military commander accused Russia on Wednesday of destabilizing eastern Ukraine through the use of Russian-backed forces and demanded that it stop interfering.

While a majority of the troops Russia had close to the Ukrainian border — previously estimated by NATO at 40,000 — had withdrawn or were in the process of withdrawing, some appeared intent on staying, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, said.

"There are several large formations that are remaining and they have not reduced their presence in any way. Some portion of the force looks like it intends to remain," he said.

Breedlove said he saw Russia's hand behind unrest in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have seized control of several towns and are locked in combat with the Ukrainian army.

"Russia is continuing to destabilize Ukraine in other ways. Russian irregular forces, Russian-backed forces, and Russian financing are very active in eastern Ukraine. This has to stop," Breedlove told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.

"I think what you see in the east part of Ukraine are very well-led, very well-financed, very well-organized clashes with Ukrainian forces ... seizing Ukrainian buildings ... It is very clear that the Russian influence is a part of this," he said.

Moscow denies such involvement in eastern Ukraine.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has raised concerns with Moscow about reports of Chechens and other fighters crossing into Ukraine from Russia to join the rebellions against the leadership in Kyiv.

The Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya has denied sending fighters to support pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, but said some could have gone of their own accord.

NATO has made clear it has no plans to get involved militarily in Ukraine but it has sent fighter aircraft and ships to eastern Europe to reassure NATO allies alarmed by Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

Acting Ukrainian Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval attends a defense ministers meeting at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels on June 3, 2014.

UPDATE: 6/4/14 12:10 AM ET

Ukraine's armored personnel carriers take a beating

Kyiv Post's Christopher Miller tweeted these two images of armored personnel carriers used by Ukrainian forces. There's no indication that these are before and after images, but they look like the same kind of vehicle:

UPDATE: 6/4/14 11:43 AM ET

What happened in Luhansk overnight?

While fighting continued in Slovyansk on Wednesday, separatist rebels seemed to gain an upper hand in the eastern region of Luhansk, capturing two Ukrainian military bases, according to the BBC.

The narrative is unclear, as the BBC reported that separatists "seized" a border guard base and a National Guard base, while the Associated Press said Ukrainian forces "abandoned" a military outpost in Luhansk.

According to the AP, Ukrainian forces left their post after running out of ammunition in an hours-long gun battle with pro-Russian militants.

Luhansk saw a day-long exchange of gunfire on Monday, and each side blamed the other for an explosion that killed at least two people. While rebels said the destruction was caused by a Ukrainian air strike, Ukraine said it was the result of a misfired heat-seeking missile launched by the rebels.

Either way, it looks like the separatists have control of the National Guard base in Luhansk:

Tracer bullets fired by pro-Russian militants at the patrol service regiment of the National Guard of Ukraine based in eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk on June 3, 2014.
A pro-Russian militant holds a grenade and Kalashnikov as he rests on June 4, 2014 after the separatists seized the building of the patrol service regiment of the National Guard of Ukraine based in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk.
A pro-Russian militant examines damaged Kalashnikov rifles on June 4, 2014 at the building of the patrol service regiment of the National Guard of Ukraine based in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk.

UPDATE: 6/4/14 10:40 AM ET

The death toll from fighting in eastern Ukraine is unclear with each side claiming to have killed high numbers of the opposition

Reuters — Government forces pressed on with an offensive in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, claiming they had inflicted heavy losses on separatist fighters, though this was denied by the rebels.

A spokesman for Kyiv's "anti-terrorist operation" said more than 300 rebel fighters had been killed and about 500 wounded in fierce fighting in the past 24 hours in and around the city of Slovyansk, a strategically located separatist stronghold.

Government forces used aircraft, helicopters and artillery in a fierce attack to try to root out the separatists who have controlled Slovyansk and surrounding areas since early April.

But the rebels on Wednesday denied the government's casualty figures. "Reports of 300 dead are not true. Losses to the Ukrainian side were more than ours," Aleksander Boroday, "prime minister" of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

Describing the fighting as "heavy," the government forces spokesman, Vladyslav Seleznyov, said two servicemen had been killed and 45 wounded.

Ukrainian troops man a check-point near the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, Donetsk region on June 4, 2014.

Fighting was continuing in Slovyansk region and mopping-up operations were underway in the nearby town of Krasny Liman, which he said government forces had taken control of on Tuesday.

Since government forces resumed their push against the rebels, there have been clashes in and around the main industrial hub of Donetsk and near the border town of Luhansk, with loss of life on both sides.

But it is not clear what real progress the Ukrainian military — whose initial efforts in April to root out the rebels flopped with defections and loss of military equipment — are making against the rebels who occupy strategic points in densely populated cities.

Slovyansk, a town of about 130,000 and located at the centre of the three main regions of eastern Ukraine, was quickly taken under the control of the rebels in early April and government forces have had little success in weakening their grip on the city.

The offensive in Slovyansk followed a daylong firefight on Monday in Luhansk, a town further to the east on the Russian border, after an attack by separatists on a border guard camp.

Government forces acknowledged on Wednesday that the border guard camp had been evacuated and personnel had left with their weapons, though the separatists described this as a surrender.

Zhanna, a resident of a nearby apartment block, said she saw guns and ammunition being removed from the base. "The (separatist) militia has taken over the building and lowered the Ukrainian flag," she said.

UPDATE: 6/4/14 10:00 AM ET

Obama offers Poroshenko support, both moral and material

Reuters — US President Barack Obama on Wednesday called Ukraine's President-elect Petro Poroshenko a "wise selection" to lead the country and pledged more military aid to help address security threats from Russian-backed separatists.

Obama, speaking to reporters after a meeting with Poroshenko in Warsaw, said they discussed the new leader's plan to restore peace, boost economic growth, and reduce energy dependence on Russia.

"In my discussions with him today it's clear he understands the hopes and aspirations of the Ukrainian people," Obama said.

US President Barack Obama and President-elect Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine hold a meeting in Warsaw, Poland, on June 4, 2014.

Obama said he discussed with Poroshenko ways the United States can help train Ukrainian law enforcement and military personnel.

The White House said in a statement after the meeting that Obama had approved an additional $23 million in defense security assistance to Ukraine since early March, including $5 million for "the provision of body armor, night vision goggles, and additional communications equipment."

Ukrainians have urged Washington to provide more support to help reduce concerns over Russian intervention in the country.

The White House said other aid has included 300,000 ready-to-eat meals and financing for medical supplies, helmets, hand-held radios and other equipment.

UPDATE: 6/3/14 4:30 PM ET

Signing off

This live blog is now closed.

UPDATE: 6/3/14 3:00 PM ET

Northern Donetsk region cleared of militants, security officials tell acting president

The Kyiv Post is reporting that senior military and security officials informed acting President Oleksander Turchynov of the "anti-terrorist" operation's success in parts of the Donetsk region.

The report says, "As the result of the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) the northern most area of Donetsk Oblast has been cleared of militants, their main stronghold in Semenivka has been destroyed and control over Krasnyi Lyman has been established."

UPDATE: 6/3/14 2:45 PM ET

Women and children flee from fighting in Slovyansk

There is this disturbing passage from a Reuters report on the fighting in Slovyansk:

Many of the town's women and children have left in recent days as the fighting got worse. One woman described how artillery fire began at dawn.

"I didn't know what that was before but I do now. We counted the number of fires and impacts," Daria, 27, a resident who said she was trying to leave with her daughter, said by telephone. "War planes were flying over head ... We stayed in the basement as much as we could."

A woman leaves with her daughter during an ongoing shoot-out between pro-Russia militants and border guards in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine on June 2, 2014.

UPDATE: 6/3/14 12:45 PM ET

At least two killed on the Ukrainian side in Slovyansk

Reuters — Twelve hours after Kyiv's forces launched an overnight military operation in and around Slovyansk, Vladyslav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the Ukrainians, said: "Today we have had two killed and 42 wounded."

He put the number of dead and wounded on the separatists side at about 300. This figure could not be independently confirmed.

"Fighting is continuing," he told Reuters on Tuesday evening.

President-elect Petro Poroshenko called for a resumption of military operations by government forces to quell rebellions by pro-Russian militia across the Russian-speaking east after scoring a resounding election victory on May 25.

With tension high between Ukraine and Russia, the crisis is certain to dominate diplomatic exchanges when the newly-elected Poroshenko meets world leaders this week ahead of his inauguration next Saturday.

He is expected to meet US President Barack Obama and other European leaders in Warsaw on Wednesday and will see Russia's Vladimir Putin at World War Two D-day celebrations in France on Friday, though no formal talks are planned.

Emergency doctors evacuate a wounded border guard from the Federal Border Headquarters building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk on June 3, 2014.

This video, released by the Ukrainian military, shows the wounded being evacuated. [h/t BBC's Daniel Sandford]

UPDATE: 6/3/14 11:50 AM ET

US is reviewing its military presence in Europe

Reuters — The United States is reviewing its military presence in Europe as a result of Russia's intervention in Ukraine, the White House said on Tuesday at the start of a four-day European trip by President Barack Obama.

Obama will call on Congress to support a "European Reassurance Initiative" of up to $1 billion to increase US military rotations on the continent, it said.

The effort would involve increased participation by the US Navy in NATO naval force deployments, including "more persistent deployments" to the Black and Baltic seas, it said.

"We are reviewing our force presence in Europe in light of the new security challenges on the continent," the White House said in a statement. "These efforts will not come at the expense of other defense priorities, such as our commitment to the Asia Pacific rebalance."

Agence France-Presse has more on the proposed European Reassurance Initiative.

UPDATE: 6/3/14 10:30 AM ET

Ukraine's army and separatists clash in Slovyansk

Reuters — Fighting raged in eastern Ukraine for the second straight day on Tuesday as the army rolled out an offensive against pro-Russia separatists holding the city of Slovyansk and claimed to have inflicted losses on the rebels.

Rebels in the town, a fierce separatist stronghold where a military helicopter was shot down last week killing 14 servicemen, said they had brought down a Su-25 attack aircraft and a helicopter, but this was denied by Ukrainian authorities.

The fighting in Slovyansk followed a day-long fire-fight on Monday in Luhansk, a town further east on the border with Russia, after an attack by separatists on a border guard camp.

Pro-Russia militants fire at Ukrainian border guards defending the Federal Border Headquarters in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on June 2, 2014

At least two people were killed in the city center of Luhansk, which like Slovyansk is under separatist control, by a blast which rebels said came from a Ukrainian air strike but which the Ukrainians said was caused by a misfire of a heat-seeking missile by the rebels.

Reports of fresh fighting coincided with Ukraine announcing that 59 servicemen had been killed in clashes with rebels since hostilities broke out in the east in April.

"In Donetsk and Luhansk regions 181 people have been killed and 293 wounded by terrorist activity including 59 servicemen," general prosecutor Oleh Makhnitsky told a news conference.

Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern regions which border on Russia have been riven with separatist armed rebellions for the past two months.

The Kyiv government says the fighting is fomented by Russia, which opposes its pro-Western policies, and accuses Russia of allowing volunteer fighters to cross into Ukraine to fight alongside the rebels.

A teenager examines burned cars near a Federal Border Headquarters building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk on June 3, 2014.

"At the present time the active phase of the 'anti-terrorist operation' is going on near Slovyansk. The (separatist) fighters are being blocked. If they refuse to lay down their arms they will be destroyed," said Vladyslav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the military operation.

"Our job is to establish peace in the region and this we will do," he said.

He could not confirm reports of wounded on the Ukrainian side around Slovyansk, but he said there were preliminary reports of dead and wounded among the separatist fighters.

"Information that Ukrainian planes and helicopters have been shot down are not true. Yesterday one of the helicopters received holes from small arms fire," he said.

Defense analyst Dmytro Tymchuk, who is recognized as having good military sources, said separately that one person had been killed on the Ukrainian side and 13 others wounded when a Ukrainian military column was attacked on its way to Slovyansk from its base in Izyum, to the north-west.

UPDATE: 6/2/14 5:00 PM ET

Signing off

This live blog is now closed.

UPDATE: 6/2/14 2:40 PM ET

Russia calls Luhansk explosion an 'air strike,' lays blame on Kyiv

While separatists fighting in Luhansk blamed Ukrainian forces for the explosion in Luhansk earlier on Monday, Ukraine said the explosion was caused by a heat-seeking device launched by the rebels themselves. (See below for more details.)

The Russian Foreign Ministry threw its weight behind the separatists' argument, calling the reported "air strike" a crime committed by Kyiv against its own people.

"The authorities in Kyiv have committed another crime against their own people," a statement on the ministry's website said, according to Reuters. "Everything that has taken place (there) indicates the downright unwillingness of the Kyiv authorities to move towards seeking ways for national accord in the country."

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

Each side blames the other for Luhansk explosion that killed two

Reuters — At least two people were killed and several injured on Monday in an explosion in Luhansk which separatists controlling the eastern Ukrainian city said was the result of an air strike by the Ukrainian military.

This was denied by the Kyiv side, which said it was caused by separatists who had launched a heat-seeking rocket at a Ukrainian plane but the missile had zeroed in instead on the rebel-occupied regional administration building.

A video clip published by local people on a Russian social media page showed two bodies lying in parkland near the main regional building, one of them that of a woman.

"The number of casualties is still being determined, but it is already known for sure that there are two dead," a local health official, Pavel Malysh, told Interfax-Ukraine news agency. Interfax quoted unnamed separatist sources as giving a higher death toll of five.

The video showed a man pumping the chest of a prone victim to resuscitate him while other people carried other casualties in makeshift stretchers made of blankets.

Malysh quoted eyewitnesses as saying more than 10 wounded had been taken to the main regional hospital.

Earlier, defense analyst Dmytro Tymchuk, who is seen as having reliable military sources, said Ukrainian security chiefs had begun a "full-scale operation to neutralise terrorist groups" in Luhansk.

Vladyslav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the operation against the separatists, denied there had been any air strike against the regional administration offices.

But he acknowledged air strikes against two separatist checkpoints in Luhansk region.

"We destroyed two checkpoints in Luhansk region. When the plane was turning back, they (the separatists) tried to shoot it down. A heat-seeking device was launched but it turned out that it fell on the fighters themselves and destroyed part of the wall of the administration building," he told Ukrainska Pravda online newspaper.

Separatists had fired the missile from the roof of the state security building they are occupying but it homed in on the main administration building, also held by the rebels, a senior military official, Aleksander Rozmaznin, was quoted by Interfax as saying.

UPDATE: 6/2/14 2:00 PM ET

Recruits training

These photos from AFP/Getty Images show Ukrainian recruits training not far from Kyiv:

Recruits of volunteer battalion Donbass take part in military exercises on the shooting range of Ukrainian National guards near Novo-Petrictsi village, not far from Kiev on June 2, 2014.
More recruits training.
Ukraine's recruits for a volunteer Donbas battalion.

UPDATE: 6/2/14 12:50 PM ET

What exactly happened in Donetsk on Friday?

Senior Correspondent was in Donetsk on Friday, when it appeared one pro-Russian group expelled another from the regional administration building they had occupied for two months. The reason they gave? Looting:

For weeks, the hulking administration building, its facade obscured by junkyard barricades of tires, wood planks and barbed wire, was home to the disenfranchised, largely blue-collar masses that’d driven the protest movement here.

Inside the Soviet-era monolith, the corridors were scattered with broken furniture and festooned with anti-Kyiv slogans and crude denouncements of both Ukrainian and Western leaders.

The repulsive stench of sweat and trash wafted throughout.

It was the separatists’ answer to the sprawling barricades and tent encampments of Maidan, the nerve center of the months-long anti-government protests in Kyiv.

But those days were apparently over.

On Thursday, the Vostok Battalion fighters appeared — masked and heavy weapons drawn — and cleared most of them out of the building within hours, a move leaders said was aimed at rooting out looters and other ruffians that had plagued their ranks.

That evening, rebel authorities invited journalists inside, offering what they said was proof of their former comrades’ misdeeds: reportedly, water bottles, cigarettes and small snacks, all looted from a local supermarket as the battle for the airport raged on nearby.

UPDATE: 6/2/14 11:55 AM ET

The foreign fighters in Ukraine

By late last week, it was pretty apparent that there were foreign fighters involved in the clashes in eastern Ukraine. One pro-Russian fighter told Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk that there were Russians, Ossets and even people from Crimea fighting in the east. The fact that they're fighting alongside pro-Russian Ukrainians is now out in the open. Reuters reports:

In flak jackets and mismatched camouflage fatigues, men from eastern Ukraine, Russia and Ossetia cleaned their weapons side by side in a former Ukrainian army base, now the headquarters of a separatist militia in the city of Donetsk.

Battalion Vostok — or the East Battalion — is a heavily armed, well-organized fighting group that has burst onto the scene in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and appears to be seeking to lead the fight to prise the region from Kyiv and merge it with Russia.

The group encountered at the former Ukrainian base included a total of at least five fighters from the Russian Caucasus region of North Ossetia and from a Russian-backed enclave of Georgia.

They acknowledged they had been fighting alongside Chechens from Russia's former rebellious region of Chechnya, but these, they said, had now gone home.

The presence of fighters from Russia and other parts of former Soviet space is likely to feature prominently in talks this week when Ukraine's President-elect, Petro Poroshenko, meets US President Barack Obama and later, possibly, Russia's Vladimir Putin.


Pro-Russian armed militants of Vostok Battalion rest near the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on June 1, 2014.

Foreign fighters at the Battalion Vostok base in the north-eastern part of Donetsk, a city of 1 million people, gave various reasons for joining the separatists defending the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic."

"My personal motivation is the religion, protecting Orthodox Christianity from the West," said Oleg, nicknamed Mamay, from North Ossetia, a Russian region on the northern rim of the Caucasus mountains.

Just south of his homeland is South Ossetia, a Russia-dependent breakaway region of Georgia, which is populated by the same, mostly Orthodox ethnic group as the northern part.

In 2008, Moscow and Tbilisi fought a brief war over South Ossetia, which Russia now considers an independent state, though it is unrecognized internationally.

"In 2008 they were killing us and the Russians saved us. I came here to pay my dues to them," said a South Ossetian man.

Read the full piece at Reuters.

UPDATE: 6/2/14 11:25 AM ET

NATO and Russia trade accusations over rising violence in eastern Ukraine

Reuters — Russia's envoy to NATO on Monday accused the Western alliance of encouraging the use of force by the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine and of hampering efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, Russian news agency RIA reported.

RIA quoted Alexander Grushko, who met ambassadors of NATO member states in Brussels, as saying "unprecedented" activity by the alliance near Russia's borders was adding to tension and could undermine existing security arrangements.

At a meeting that showed the sides were "far apart" on the Ukraine crisis, which has brought ties to a post-Cold War low, NATO envoys accused Russia of backing armed rebels in Ukraine, an alliance spokeswoman said.

NATO suspended all practical cooperation with Russia in April to protest its annexation of Crimea, but left the door open to contacts at ambassadorial level or higher in order to allow the two sides to discuss ways out of the crisis.

The Western military alliance has sought to reassure eastern European allies alarmed by Russia's takeover of Crimea by stepping up exercises and sending more fighter aircraft and ships to the region. "We have noticed unprecedented NATO activity near Russia's borders. It is excessive, inappropriate, and weakens stability, security and predictability in the Euro-Atlantic region," state-run RIA quoted Grushko as saying.

He said that "demonstrations of military muscle and calls for increased military spending" were "a dead-end street. These actions are fraught with increased tension ... and the erosion of the existing security system in the region."

Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko and the pro-Western authorities in Kyiv have defied Russia's calls for an end to the government's military operation against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"NATO is providing Kyiv ... with technical support, thus encouraging the continuation of forceful actions," Grushko was quoted as saying, adding that the alliance shared the blame for "the escalation of the situation" in eastern Ukraine.

A NATO spokeswoman said that at the meeting in Brussels "it was very clear that the views on the crisis in Ukraine remain far apart and NATO allies repeated their very strong and clear position on the illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea."

The NATO allies commended Ukraine's May 25 presidential election as a clear vote for the unity of the country and urged Russia to "engage constructively" with Poroshenko, said the spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu.

They also called on Russia "to stop the flow of arms and weapons across the border, to stop supporting armed separatists in Ukraine and to withdraw in a full and verifiable manner their troops from the Ukrainian border," she said.

Pro-Russian militants of the so-called 'Eastern battalion' rest at a camp in the forest near the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on June 1, 2014.

UPDATE: 6/2/14 11:00 AM ET

An explosion in Luhansk, with everyone blaming the other side

It appears there was an explosion of some kind in Luhansk, following the attack by separatists. What remains unclear is what caused the explosion, and who was responsible for it.

This is the building that was hit:

Firemen climb to the Regional State building seized by the separatists after an explosion in Ukrainian city of Luhansk on June 2, 2014.

This video, not verified by GlobalPost, purportedly shows the moment of the explosion. (Look at the top left corner.)

UPDATE: 6/2/14 10:00 AM ET

Pro-Russian militants attack border post in Luhansk

Reuters — A fierce battle was underway on Monday in Ukraine's rebellious east after a pro-Russian militia attacked a Ukrainian border post with automatic weapons and grenade launchers in the early hours.

Security sources said a force of separatists had occupied the upper floors of a nearby apartment block and were shooting into the border post on the southern edge of Luhansk, a city very close to the frontier with Russia.

"Shooting is continuing. There has been no let-up in firing for seven hours now," border post spokesman Oleh Slobodin said.

"We have 8 or 9 wounded. The attackers have five dead and 8 wounded," he said.

Pro-Russian militants and firemen run away as they leave the Regional State building they seized during a shoot-out with Ukrainian border guards in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk on June 2, 2014.

Ukraine's eastern region has been riven with separatist armed rebellion for the past two months which the Kyiv government says is fomented by Russia. It says armed fighters from Russia and the Caucasus region are fighting alongside rebels who are fighting rule from Kyiv.

Another statement from the Ukrainian border service said the separatists at the Luhansk border post were sniping from private apartments and had stopped people leaving the residential block they had occupied, making it difficult for the border guard forces to return fire.

The Ukrainian army is taking part in an "anti-terrorist" operation to try to crush the rebellions in the east. Border guards said on Monday that the army had not yet reinforced to help them fend off the attack in Luhansk.

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