SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (CBS News/CBSDC/AP) — A column of armored personnel carriers flying Russian flags drove into a Ukrainian city controlled by pro-Russia demonstrators on Wednesday. Some of the troops aboard said they were Ukrainian soldiers who had switched allegiance.
An Associated Press reporter saw the six vehicles with troops in camouflage sitting atop enter the city of Slovyansk, a hotbed of unrest against Ukraine’s acting government. Insurgents in Slovyansk have seized the local police headquarters and administration building, demanding broader autonomy for their eastern Ukraine region and closer ties with Russia.
Eastern Ukraine was the support base for Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February after months of protests in the capital, Kiev, that were ignited by his decision to back away from closer relations with the European Union and turn toward Russia.
Ukraine’s new leaders blame Moscow for instigating the unrest in the east – but CBS News’ Holly Williams reports from the sprawling eastern city of Donetsk that the militants have popular support from many Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the region who claim they’re discriminated against by their own government.
“We’re fighting for ourselves and for our land,” one man protesting against the leadership in Kiev to CBS News. “Do I look like a terrorist to you?”
At a checkpoint in Konstaninovka, CBS News found pro-Russian protestors passing out leaflets Wednesday that were written to look and read like a declaration of independence by the people of the Donetsk region. The leaflets congratulate the people on the founding of the “Republic of Donetsk.”
Williams reports that such a scenario is exactly what Ukraine’s leaders are trying to prevent — but in spite of repeated threats that the Ukrainian military was carrying out widespread operations to oust the militants, using force against the well-armed pro-Russian forces would be a huge risk; it could provoke a military intervention from Russia, which has condemned Ukraine’s actions as criminal.
The fear is a repeat of what happened in Crimea last month when separatist demonstrations were used as a pretext for thousands of Russian soldiers to move in and then formally annex the region.
The armored vehicles rolled into Slovyansk on Wednesday, stopped near the city administration building and flew Russian flags while residents chanted “Good job! Good job!”
One of the men who came in the vehicles, who identified himself only as Andrei, said the unit was part of Ukraine’s 25th Brigade of Airborne Forces and that they have switched to the side of the pro-Russian forces.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry declined immediate comment. The government in Kiev has struggled to reign in the rebels, as some security forces have switched over to the side of the insurgents.
Kiev authorities and Western countries say tens of thousands of Russian troops are stationed near the border with Ukraine and fear that unrest in the east will be used by Moscow as a pretext for a military incursion.
President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin showed little sign of agreement on Monday after speaking for the first time in more than two weeks, with the U.S. leader urging pro-Russian forces to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine and Putin denying that Moscow was interfering in the region.
The White House said Russia initiated the phone call, which came as pro-Russian forces deepened their insurgency in Ukraine’s east, seizing more than a dozen government buildings.
“The president expressed grave concern about Russian government support for the actions of armed, pro-Russian separatists who threaten to undermine and destabilize the government of Ukraine,” the White House said in a description of Obama’s call with Putin. “The president emphasized that all irregular forces in the country need to lay down their arms, and he urged President Putin to use his influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to depart the buildings they have seized.”
In its own description of the call, the Kremlin said Putin told Obama reports of Russian interference in the region were “based on unreliable information.” The Russian leader also urged Obama to discourage the Ukrainian government from using force against those protesters.
Both sides did suggest that plans would go forward for talks Thursday in Geneva between the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and Europe. But the White House said Obama told Putin that while a diplomatic solution remained his preferred option, “it cannot succeed in an environment of Russian military intimidation on Ukraine’s borders, armed provocation within Ukraine, and escalatory rhetoric by Kremlin officials.”
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