• US presses Russia on troop withdrawal

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    SLAVYANSK, Ukraine: US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) of “additional consequences” if it fails to pull its troops back from the Ukraine border, as Kiev accused Moscow of aggression in its restive east.

    At Kiev, Ukraine’s interior minister said that both sides had suffered casualties during a raid launched by Ukrainian special forces on a police station in the eastern city of Slavyansk that was seized by pro-Russian gunmen.

    During a telephone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry “made clear that if Russia did not take steps to de-escalate in eastern Ukraine and move its troops back from Ukraine’s border, there would be additional consequences,” a senior State Department official said.

    A first wave of US sanctions unveiled in March blacklisted officials and businesspeople close to Russian President Vladimir Putin to protest at Moscow’s takeover of Crimea.

    US Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Ukraine on April 22 to stress support for Kiev and steps to improve its energy security, the White House said in a statement.

    Ukraine accused Moscow of aggression after Kalashnikov-wielding gunmen seized two security buildings in its restive eastern rust belt on Saturday amid spreading protests demanding the Russified region join Kremlin rule.

    “There are dead and wounded on both sides. On our side—an SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] officer. The head of the SBU’s anti-terrorist center has been wounded, as have four others,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.

    “On side of the separatists—an unidentified number. The separatists have started to protect themselves using human shields,”

    Avakov added that Ukraine’s special forces have begun to “regroup” but he gave no other details.

    About 20 pro-Kremlin gunmen seized the Slavyansk police station and later occupied the city’s SBU security service building.

    The raids were accompanied by unconfirmed reports of police stations in other nearby cities in the heavily Russified east of the country also falling under gunmen’s control.

    Pressure from Russia
    Ukraine’s interim government has been facing relentless pressure from Russia since its February ouster of an unpopular Kremlin-backed president and decision to seek closer ties with the West.

    The seizures highlight how little sway Kiev’s untested leaders have over pro-Russians who have since April 6 also controlled the Donetsk government seat and a state security building in the nearby eastern city of Lugansk.

    Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s eastern border after annexing the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and nearly doubled the rates it charges Kiev for gas.

    Russia is now ready to demand prepayment from the cash-strapped government for future gas deliveries or halt supplies—a move that would impact at least 18 European Union (EU) countries and deepen the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.

    A letter obtained by Agence France-Presse and dated April 11 showed European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso calling for a common EU response to Putin’s latest energy warning.

    A note sent by Putin on Thursday cautioning that gas transits through Ukraine may cease because of Kiev’s debts to Moscow “raises serious issues for Europe’s collective energy security,” Barroso wrote.

    Barroso said the issue would be raised at a meeting on Monday of EU foreign ministers.

    AFP

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