Mystery gunfight in East Ukraine sparks blame, counter-blame


SLAVIANSK: Pro-Russian authorities in eastern Ukraine presented identity documents, maps and a business card to support their view that Ukrainian far-right nationalists had carried out a deadly attack early on Sunday.
The nationalists and authorities in Kiev said it was a staged display to conceal the hand of Russian secret services in the gunfight, in which at least three people were killed.
The truth, as in so much of the standoff over Ukraine between Moscow and Kiev, was hard to establish.
Reuters journalists saw two dead bodies - one in combat fatigues and one that of a known local man in civilian clothes - lying in a truck some hours after the reported incident. It was not clear whether they were attackers, defenders or bystanders.
There were also two burned out jeeps at the makeshift checkpoint near Bylbasovka, some 18 km (11 miles) outside the town.
The local pro-separatist mayor of the nearby town of Slaviansk announced a curfew and urged Moscow to send in peacekeepers, complicating efforts to defuse the standoff between Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders and Russia.
Pro-Russian separatists said attackers had driven up to the barricaded checkpoint in the early hours and begun shooting.
They said three of their number had been killed and in a subsequent exchange of fire two of the attackers were killed. They said the attackers were from the nationalist Right Sector.
It was the first time members of Right Sector, which was at the forefront of pro-Western demonstrations in Kiev, have been accused of involvement in any deadly violence in the east, where Russia has repeatedly said it fears civil war.
A spokesman for the group denied any role.
The exchange of charge and counter-charge between separate armed groups, Moscow and Kiev underscored the deep gulf of suspicion and mistrust even as the international community moved to give teeth to a four-way agreement in Geneva last week to de-escalate tension in eastern Ukraine.
Armed separatists are in control of Slaviansk, one of 10 or so points in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine where localised rebellions have broken out against Kiev’s pro-Western leaders following the overthrow of Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovich two months ago.
A personal appeal by Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-appointed pro-separatist mayor of Slaviansk, to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin to consider sending in peacekeeping forces was certain to raise alarm in Kiev.
“Vladimir Vladimirovich, fascists and imperialists are using all means to try to defeat our small provincial city in the Donetsk Region”, he said in remarks directed to Putin and reported by Russian online news channel LifeNews.
Ponomaryov, who was installed by separatists when they took over the town on April 12, announced a curfew for the town to run between the midnight and 6 a.m.
Russia’s foreign ministry issued a statement backing the separatists’ version of events and blaming armed members of Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist group which played a key role in the overthrow of Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich in February.
It was a source of surprise, the ministry said, that the incident had happened after Russia, the European Union, the United States and Ukraine had signed the April 17 accord in Geneva calling on people to desist from using violence or intimidation.
In Kiev, Right Sector denied any involvement and blamed Russia’s special forces, whom the Kiev leadership suspects of being behind separatist rebellion in the east, of organising the attack.
Ukraine’s state security agency (SBU) also denounced what it called a “cynical” provocation by criminals and agents “who are supported and armed by Russian military intelligence”.
And Kiev’s interior ministry caustically commented on the speed “with which camera crews from Russian TV stations appeared at the scene of the shooting ...” 

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