Missile attacks kill at least 30 in Mariupol, east Ukraine
Pro-Russian rebels announce major new offensive in Ukraine, after attacks on crowded residential district
Chris Johnston and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 24 January 2015 11.12 GMT
Shelling killed at least 30 people and wounded over 97 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol
Pro-Russian rebels announced a major new offensive in Ukraine on Saturday after missiles killed at least 30 people in Mariupol, a strategic city linking rebel territory with Russian-occupied Crimea.
The local mayor’s office said 97 people were also wounded in the attack, which struck a crowded residential district early in the morning and then again shortly after midday.
Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said on Friday that he had withdrawn from all peace talks with pro-western leaders in Kiev. On Saturday he said his forces had launched “an offensive against Mariupol” but did not accept direct responsibility for the earlier rocket attack.
The European Union condemned the attacks and warned that the escalation in fighting would harm EU-Russia relations.
The offensive “would inevitably lead to a further grave deterioration of relations between the EU and Russia”, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said.
Ertuğrul Apakan, chief of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission, called for an immediate ceasefire. “Ukraine and its people need and deserve peace. The parties must return to the negotiating table without further delay,” he said.
Mariupol municipal spokesman Oleg Kalinin called on Russia to intervene to end the violence.
Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of Ukraine’s national defence council, described the incident as “another bloody crime against humanity committed by the Russian military and the bands of terrorists under their complete control”.
A strategic highway that links rebel-held regions to the east and the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that Russia annexed from Ukraine in March runs through Mariupol, which is home to about 500,000 people.
A massive rebel assault on the city in August was held back by government forces, but took a heavy toll and prompted Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to agree to a truce in September.
However, more clashes followed costing the lives of at least 1,500 people.
Rebel forces have regained control over the remains of Donetsk airport, which has been controlled by the Ukrainians since the start of the conflict. The rebels appeared to be moving in on the town of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian troops are under siege.
One Mariupol resident said: “Everyone in the city is very scared. The rebels have already seized the airport. And now they are starting to destroy Mariupol itself.”
Poroshenko said this week there were 9,000 regular Russian troops in Ukraine. Russia has denied that there were any, and denied even supplying weapons to the rebels, despite the obvious evidence of such transfers on the ground.
The military rhetoric on both sides has intensified in recent days, with the Ukrainian leader saying on Twitter that if the rebels failed to abide by the ceasefire, Kiev’s supporters would “give it to them in the teeth”.
The UN human rights office said the conflict in eastern Ukraine has now left 5,000 people dead, including 262 in the past nine days.
Obama Ramps Up Pressure on Russia after Deadly Ukraine Blitz
by Naharnet Newsdesk 25 January 2015, 14:20
U.S. President Barack Obama vowed on Sunday to ramp up pressure on Russia after rocket attacks blamed on Kremlin-backed Ukrainian rebels killed 30 and injured 95 more.
Saturday's surprise assault on the strategic eastern Ukrainian port of Mariupol threatened to open a new front linking separatist territory near the Russian border with the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that Moscow annexed in March.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told an emergency security meeting that Kiev had intercepted calls confirming Saturday's barrage was carried out by separatist "terrorists who receive support in Russia."
And Obama said he would now look at all options -- short of military intervention -- aimed at restraining Russian President Vladimir Putin's alleged proxy war aimed at stripping Ukraine's pro-Western leaders of their vital eastern industrial base.
He pledged to "ratchet up the pressure on Russia" in cooperation with the European Union, which had been thinking of easing existing sanctions on Russia in the coming months.
"If Mr Putin and if Russia are hell-bent on engaging in military conflicts, their military is more powerful than Ukraine's," Obama said during a visit to India.
"The question is going to be whether they continue to pursue a path that not only is bad for the people of Ukraine, but is... bad for the people of Russia."
New European Council President Donald Tusk -- a former Polish prime minister who had long been suspicious of Putin -- also warned that the Mariupol attack showed that "appeasement encourages the aggressor to greater acts of violence.
"Time to step up our policy based on cold facts, not illusions," Tusk tweeted.
- 'No alternative to truce' -
The Kremlin flatly denies arming and funding the rebels, who have renounced all truce talks.
It had remained conspicuously silent about Saturday's offensive and Russian state media played repeated footage of a low-ranking militant claiming that the assault was ordered by the Kiev government.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Sunday that the latest upsurge in violence was the result of "constant shelling" by Kiev's troops.
"Lavrov pointed out that an escalation of the situation is a result of Ukrainian troops crudely violating the Minsk agreements by constantly shelling residential settlements," the foreign ministry said after Russia's top diplomat spoke to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by phone.
Poroshenko told his top generals that he had asked the European Union to ramp up sanctions on Russia at a special session of foreign ministers on Monday.
The Western-backed leader -- looking tired after cutting short his attendance at the burial of the late Saudi king -- also insisted that the attack would not provoke Kiev into ordering a tough military response.
"Ukraine remains a firm proponent of a peaceful solution," he told a televised meeting of his National Security and Defense Council.
Regional police said 95 people were also wounded by dozens of long-distance rockets that smashed into a packed residential district and a market in Mariupol on Saturday.
"It is really dangerous here now," Mariupol resident Yulia Simina told Agence France-Presse.
The 27-year-old said she had moved to the city to avoid the daily bloodshed in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk that lies to the north.
But she lost her car in the shelling and just avoided being hit by shrapnel herself.
The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic's leader Alexander Zakharchenko claimed Saturday that "today we launched an offensive against Mariupol".
He later distanced himself from the rocket fire and denied ordering an actual invasion of the industrial port of half a million people.
But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the Grad and Uragan rocket fire came from two locations "controlled by the 'Donetsk People's Republic'".
- Link to Crimea -
Mariupol remained calm on Sunday as international monitors patrolled its muddied streets.
The Sea of Azov port of nearly half a million people provides a land bridge between guerrilla-held regions in the east and the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
It is also home to two of Ukraine's largest smelters and most of the southeast's vital coal and steel exports go through its docks.
A rebel assault on the port in early September saw Kiev repel the attack at such heavy cost that it prompted Poroshenko to pursue peace and offer the rebels three years of limited self-rule.
But the ceasefire was followed by further clashes that killed at least 1,500 people, and combat resumed in full in mid-January after a three-week lull.
Western diplomats linked the rebel advance to a new infusion of Russian troops -- denied by the Kremlin -- designed to expand separatist territory before the signing of a final truce and land demarcation agreement.
Ukraine claimed Monday that Moscow had poured nearly 1,000 more Russian soldiers and dozens of tanks into the southeast to secure control over factories and coal mines that could help the rebels build their own state.
"Taking Mariupol is a first step to a broader offensive. It is also an end in itself, anchoring the southern flank in the city," the U.S.-based Stratfor global intelligence company warned in a "red alert" issued to clients.
Pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk keep on the attack as war of words intensifies
Vladimir Putin blames ‘criminals’ from Ukrainian government for increased violence in east of the country
Shaun Walker in Donetsk
The Guardian, Friday 23 January 2015 16.24 GMT
Pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk have said they plan to stay on the attack against Kiev’s forces, as the Russian president Vladimir Putin blamed “criminal orders” from the Ukrainian government for increased violence in the east of the country.
“There will be no more ceasefires,” said rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko at a meeting with students, a day after an attack on a trolleybus in Donetsk left up to 13 dead. Zakharchenko said Ukraine was currently mobilising recruits and had been planning a new assault.
“We took the decision not to wait for the Ukrainian army to attack. We will attack them until we have reached the borders of the former Donetsk region,” said Zakharchenko, indicating an area that includes a number of towns currently under Ukrainian control, including the port city of Mariupol.
The UN human rights office says the conflict in eastern Ukraine has now left 5,000 people dead, including 262 in the past nine days alone.
A ceasefire was agreed at talks in Minsk in September but has never really held. The Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers met on Wednesday evening in Berlin and again affirmed the document, calling on heavy artillery to be withdrawn from the front lines, but the situation on the ground has only got worse.
Already this week the rebels have regained control over the remains of Donetsk airport, which has been controlled by the Ukrainians since the start of the conflict, and appear to be moving in on the town of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian troops are under siege.
In televised comments, Putin blamed the renewed violence on Ukrainian forces: “The Kiev authorities have given an official order to start large-scale military operations practically throughout the whole line of contact. The result is dozens of killed and wounded, not only among the military on both sides but... among civilians,” Putin told senior state officials.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Igor Shuvalov, said: “The west does not treat Russia as an equal partner, and this will make the conflict in Ukraine a bleeding wound for decades.” He blamed the west also for sanctions against Russia, which have combined with falling oil prices to deal a hefty blow to the rouble in recent months. German’s chancellor Angela Merkel said this week that the sanctions should not be lifted yet.
The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, said this week there were 9,000 regular Russian troops in Ukraine. Russia has denied that there are any, and denies even supplying military hardware to the rebels, despite the obvious evidence of such transfers on the ground.
The military rhetoric on both sides has intensified in recent days, with Poroshenko taking to Twitter on Thursday evening to say that if the rebels did not abide by the ceasefire, Kiev’s supporters would “give it to them in the teeth”.
Much remains unclear about the bus attack in Donetsk on Thursday. Rather like an attack on a Ukrainian checkpoint this month that also left 13 dead, both sides have blamed the other. In the earlier incident, international monitors said it appeared that the bus had been hit by missiles fired by rebels.
This time, Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said the attack had been carried out by “Russian terrorists”, while rebels said a Ukrainian “diversionary group” operating behind rebel lines was responsible for carrying out the attack. However, no further information about the group, which rebels said they had detained, has been forthcoming.
Kerry denounces pro-Russia rebels' missile attacks in Ukraine
Reuters in Zurich
theguardian.com, Saturday 24 January 2015 21.05 GMT
John Kerry, US secretary of state, said on Saturday he joined his European counterparts in condemning an assault by pro-Russia rebels on Mariupol, Ukraine, and called on Russia to end its support for the rebels.
At least 30 people died in Mariupol, a strategic city linking rebel territory with Russian-occupied Crimea, on Saturday. The local mayor’s office said 97 people were also wounded when missiles struck a crowded residential district early in the morning and then again shortly after midday.
“It is reprehensible that the separatists are publicly glorifying this and other offensives in blatant violation of the Minsk agreements they signed,” Kerry said in a statement issued while on a visit to Zurich.
Kerry said the separatists’ assault has been aided by Russia’s “irresponsible and dangerous decision to resupply them in recent weeks with hundreds of new pieces of advanced weaponry, including rocket systems, heavy artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, in addition to continuing operational command and control”.
“We call on Russia to end its support for separatists immediately, close the international border with Ukraine, and withdraw all weapons, fighters and financial backing. Otherwise, US and international pressure on Russia and its proxies will only increase,” Kerry added.
EU Mulls Emergency Meeting over Russia-Ukraine Conflict
by Naharnet Newsdesk 24 January 2015, 17:39
The European Union is considering an emergency meeting to discuss the Russia-Ukraine conflict after rocket attacks killed at least 30 people in Ukraine's strategic Maruipol port on Saturday.
Latvia, which holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency until July, called for an emergency meeting of the EU foreign affairs council next week.
"I call for extraordinary EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting next week, fully support action by HR @FedericaMog addressing situation in UA," Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics said Saturday via Twitter.
In a separate statement the Latvian Foreign Ministry said it was increasingly evident that Russia "is not interested in a peaceful resolution of the conflict" in Ukraine in light of events in Mariupol.
"Those responsible for the aggression should be aware that the international community will undoubtedly and sharply react to further escalation," the statement said.
Earlier the EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini denounced the rocket attacks saying in a statement that the escalation would cause a further deterioration in relations between the EU and Russia.
On Saturday Alexandre Zakhartchenko, leader of the self-declared Donetsk republic, announced the launch of an offensive on Kiev-controled Maruipol.
That assault has already caused at least 30 deaths and injured 90 people, according to provisional counts AFP obtained from Mariupol municipal spokesman Oleg Kalinin.
Mogherini called directly on Russia to intercede and halt the carnage.
"I call ... openly upon Russia to use its considerable influence over separatist leaders and to stop any form of military, political or financial support," her statement said.
"This would prevent disastrous consequences for all. Those responsible for the escalation must stop their hostile actions and live up to their commitments."
Although the EU may adopt new sanctions against Russia in the event of continued escalation, thus far there has been no official debate on additional action beyond measures already approved and applied against Moscow after.
Source: Agence France Presse