• Ukraine says Russia stoking tensions ahead of EU summit

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    BRUSSELS: Ukraine accused Russia of stoking tensions across their borders on Thursday as the United Nations (UN) Security Council and European leaders held emergency talks to try to resolve the conflict.

    OSCE monitors are expected in Crimea in a mission to defuse the tensions.

    The EU summit in Brussels starts at 10:30 local time, when leaders will meet with Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk who took over after former pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month following three months of deadly protests.

    Kiev wants a political solution so “it depends on Russia [if]it is ready to fix this conflict . . . or is Russia reluctant and [wants]to increase tension, as they did in the past few hours,” Yatsenyuk said after meeting European Parliament head Martin Schulz.

    Ahead of the summit the EU froze assets held by 18 Ukrainians accused of embezzlement, including the ousted Yanukovych and his son Oleksandr, and some member states were talking about further political and economic sanctions against Russia.

    US Secretary of State John Kerry will hold a second round of talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, as well as EU foreign ministers later Thursday and the UN Security Council will hold talks in New York, the body’s fourth consultations on the subject since Friday.

    As the EU confers, 40 unarmed international military personnel from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were to arrive in Ukraine’s flashpoint Crimea region for an inspection.

    Russian forces seized the rugged peninsula over the weekend saying the rights of ethnic Russians were in danger in a move condemned by the international community and Ukraine as an “aggression.”

    Inside Ukrainian bases in the region, nervous soldiers were standing their ground, refusing to surrender or hand over their weapons, but in most cases clearly not ready to hold off a full-out Russian assault.

    “Of course we are worried, anything can happen. It’s a very dangerous situation,” said Lydia Kuzminichna, a 72-year-old running errands in the regional capital Simferopol.

    Highlighting the strains on the ground, UN special envoy to Crimea Robert Serry was forced to cut short a visit when he was confronted by unidentified gunmen on Wednesday, but was to return to Kiev soon, according to the UN.

    Serry, who had been sent to the region by UN chief Ban Ki-moon, was confronted by armed men after visiting the Ukrainian naval headquarters in Crimea’s capital Simferopol, he told CNN television.

    Prevented from returning to his vehicle, Serry said the men said they “received orders . . . to bring me immediately to the airport” although they declined to say from whom.

    “They said it was in my own safety. I refused and a standoff ensued,” he added, saying at one point his driver was pulled from the car.

    Serry sought refuge in a local cafe with his assistant to phone the mission and then after a tense two-hour standoff, he was driven to the airport and boarded the first flight out of the region — to Istanbul.

    Pro-Russian forces also entered and took over parts of a Ukrainian missile base on Wednesday in the latest such incident on the peninsula, while a Ukrainian court ordered the arrest of Crimea’s newly installed pro-Russian Prime Minister Sergiy Aksyonov for separatism.

    Violent protests have also broken out in cities in mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, where several regional government buildings have been taken over by pro-Russian
    militants who have clashed with police.

    But Kerry said he was hopeful of a “de-escalation” in the standoff after meeting Lavrov on the eve of the EU summit.

    Western leaders have increased diplomatic pressure on Russia, with some threatening to boycott the G8 summit in Russia in June and NATO saying it will review a series of accords with Moscow.

    Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that the United States will bolster military cooperation with Poland and Baltic states to show “support” for its allies following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

    The moves to expand aviation training in Poland and step up the US role in NATO’s air patrols over Baltic countries were clearly designed to reassure alliance partners in Central and Eastern Europe following alarm at Russia’s actions in Crimea.

    More stringent sanctions against Russia have been mooted but their prospect is seen as unlikely, at least for now.

    “The logic is to get out of the crisis, not sanctions,” said a source from the entourage of French President Francois Hollande who will discuss the situation with British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the 25 other European Union chiefs in Brussels.

    The priority for the EU is to strengthen the near-bankrupt former Soviet republic and its fledgling government.

    The European Commission on Wednesday announced a massive aid plan of “at least 11 billion euros [$15 billion],” although France said money should only be disbursed after elections in Kiev planned for May 25.

    The US House of Representatives will vote Thursday on authorizing an aid package for Ukraine.

    Meanwhile a US-based anchor for the Russia Today television network resigned live on air in protest at the deployment of Russia-backed forces in Ukraine.

    Liz Wahl said during a broadcast that she could no longer work for a Moscow-funded network, which she accused of “whitewashing” the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    AFP

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