Ukraine threatens military action
The acting president warned of military action after pro-Russian separatists ignored an ultimatum to leave.
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SLAVIANSK/KIEV - Ukraine's president on Monday threatened military action after pro-Russian separatists occupying government buildings in the east ignored an ultimatum to leave and another group of rebels attacked a police headquarters in the troubled region.
Acting president Oleksander Turchinov also held out the possibility of a referendum on the future shape of the Ukrainian state, partly addressing demands made in the largely Russian-speaking east for more control over their local affairs.
As the 9am deadline issued by authorities in Kiev expired, a Reuters reporter in the flashpoint city of Slaviansk, where armed men had seized two government buildings, saw nothing to show the rebels were obeying the ultimatum.
At least 100 pro-Russian separatists attacked the police headquarters in the city of Horlivka on Monday, a witness told Reuters, and video footage on Ukrainian television showed an ambulance treating people apparently injured in the attack.
Angered by the death of a state security officer and the wounding of two comrades near Slaviansk, Turchinov warned rebels that an anti-terrorist operation involving the army would begin unless they laid down their arms, and that the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine "will soon be stabilised".
His warning raised fears of possible Russian military intervention, but there were no signs of any Ukrainian forces in Slaviansk on Monday and no sign of an anti-terrorist operation.
Outside the city council offices stood a group of about 12 armed men in matching camouflage fatigues, with black balaclavas, one of whom was holding a Russian flag.
The new element in the operation announced by Turchinov is the inclusion of the army which has not been involved in more than four months of turmoil and is untested in dealing with internal disorder.
The move to bring in the army shows a lack of confidence in the 30,000-strong interior ministry troops which have been discredited by identification with the leadership of ousted president Viktor Yanukovich.
Turchinov and other leaders blame Russia, which annexed Ukraine's Crimea region when Moscow-backed Yanukovich fled after months of pro-Western protests, for inspiring and organising a rash of rebellions in Slaviansk and other Russian-speaking towns in eastern Ukraine.
Turchinov said the Kiev leadership was "not against" a nationwide referendum being held on the type of state Ukraine should be and added he was sure it would confirm the wish of the majority for a united, independent country.
The holding of a referendum has been one of the demands of the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, although they envisage a poll being held only in their home region. Turchinov such a referendum could be held at the same time as a presidential election on 25 May.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern regions should be involved in drafting a constitution that should be put to the referendum.
He denied Ukrainian and US allegations that Russia had undercover agents fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, and said he was seeking explanation of media reports that the director of the CIA, John Brennan, had visited Kiev.
The crisis in Ukraine has brought relations between Russia and the West to their worst since the end of the Cold War in 1991, and also risks unleashing a "gas war" which could disrupt energy supplies across Europe. Ukraine said on Saturday it would stop paying for Russian gas because the price was too high.
Russian stocks and the rouble fell sharply on Monday, reflecting fears of further Russian military intervention in Ukraine and more western sanctions against Moscow.
The United Nations Security Council held an emergency session on Sunday night, and the United States warned that it was likely to impose further sanctions on Russians close to the Kremlin if the escalation in eastern Ukraine continues.
European Union foreign ministers were due to discuss whether to impose further sanctions on Moscow.
With East-West relations in crisis, NATO described the appearance in eastern Ukraine of men with specialised Russian weapons and identical uniforms without insignia - as previously worn by Moscow's troops when they seized Crimea - as a "grave development".
Ukraine has repeatedly said the rebellions are inspired and directed by the Kremlin. But action to dislodge the armed militants risks tipping the stand-off into a new, dangerous phase as Moscow has warned it will protect the region's Russian-speakers if they come under attack.