Ukraine and Russia have blamed each other for a shoot-out at a checkpoint manned by pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine that left one person dead and others in hospital.
The identity of the attackers remained unclear yesterday but Russia blamed militant Ukrainian nationalists and the Ukrainian government said the attack near the city of Slovyansk was staged by provocateurs from outside the country.
The clash appeared to be the first since an international agreement was reached last week in Geneva to ease tensions in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia activists have seized government buildings in ten cities.
Many in Ukraine fear such clashes could provide a pretext for Russia to seize more Ukrainian territory. Russia has tens of thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman acknowledged at the weekend that some were there because of instability in eastern Ukraine.
The self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, appealed to Russia yesterday during a news conference in the city to send in peacekeeping troops. Yuri Zhadobin, who co-ordinates the pro-Russia unit manning the checkpoint in the village of Bylbasivka, said he was with about 20 men celebrating Easter when unknown men drove up in four vehicles and opened fire.
“We began to shoot back from behind the barricades and we threw Molotov cocktails,” Mr Zhadobin said. Two of the vehicles caught fire and the attackers fled in the other two, he said.
Some of his men were wounded and one later died in hospital, he said.
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry blamed the clash on the Right Sector; a nationalist Ukrainian group that has supported the interim government in Kiev but is not part of it.
But a spokesman for Right Sector, Artyom Skoropatskiy, denied any involvement in the shooting, which he called a provocation staged by Russian special services. Ukraine’s Security Service also called the attack a “cynical provocation” staged from “the outside”.
Russian state television showed pictures of items said to have been seized from the attackers – weapons, ammunition, maps and the business card of Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh. A man said to be a member of Right Sector and one of the attackers was later paraded before television cameras in the custody of an insurgent. The man said he would advise other Right Sector activists against coming to eastern Ukraine.
Mr Putin has rejected claims that Russian special forces are directing the insurgents. He also said he hopes not to send troops into eastern Ukraine, but retains the right to intervene if necessary to protect ethnic Russians.
Russian state media has been feeding fears among the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine that their lives are in danger because of the Right Sector.
“We hope that Russia will help, that Russia will protect us. Who else can we turn to for help?” asked Andrei Zarubin, 30, who came to the Bylbasivka checkpoint yesterday to replace those who had come under attack. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement said the attack “proves the unwillingness of the Ukrainian authorities to restrain and disarm the nationalists and extremists.”
After last week’s talks in Geneva, diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the US and the EU called for an array of actions, including the disarming of militant groups.