Ukraine peace deal falters

Pro-Moscow separatist gunmen have shown no signs of surrendering govt buildings.

Pro-Russian militants stand guard in front of the occupied Ukraine Security Service building on 21 April, 2014 in Slovyansk, Ukraine. Picture: AFP.

KIEV/SLAVIANSK- An international agreement to avert wider conflict in Ukraine was faltering on Monday, with pro-Moscow separatist gunmen showing no sign of surrendering government buildings they have seized.

US and European officials say they will hold Moscow responsible and impose new economic sanctions if the separatists do not clear out of government buildings they have occupied across swathes of eastern Ukraine over the past two weeks.

Washington, which signed last week's accord in Geneva along with Moscow, Kiev and the European Union, said it would decide "in days" on additional sanctions if Russia does not take steps to implement the agreement.

US Secretary of State John Kerry urged his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Monday to help carry out the deal, including by "publicly calling on separatists to vacate illegal buildings and checkpoints", spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

"If they don't take steps in the coming days, there'll be consequences," she told a news briefing on Monday.

"Obviously, we would have to make a decision in a matter of days if there are going to be consequences for inaction."

The United States and the European Union have imposed visa bans and asset freezes on some Russians over Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last month. Those limited measures, designed not to have wider economic impact and to avoid deepening the crisis, have been mocked as pointless by Moscow.

Building a consensus on tougher measures is tricky in Europe where many countries rely on Russian energy exports.

In its account of their telephone conversation, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov had called on Kerry to "influence Kiev, not let hotheads there provoke a bloody conflict" and to encourage it "to fulfil its obligations unflaggingly."

US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Kiev, where he is expected to announce a package of technical assistance. The visit is likely to be more important as a symbol of support than for any specific promises Biden makes in public.

MUTUAL ACCUSATIONS

The Geneva Accord, aimed to lower tension in the worst confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War, calls for occupied buildings to be vacated under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE.

But no sooner had the accord been signed than both sides accused the other of breaking it, while the pro-Moscow rebels disavowed the pledge to withdraw from occupied buildings.

In other signs the Geneva accord was far from being implemented, activists in Slaviansk brought up trucks laden with sand and were filling sandbags to reinforce their barricades.

Separatists said they would not disarm until Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist group in western Ukraine, did so first.

Russia says Right Sector members have threatened Russian speakers. Kiev and Western countries say the threat is largely invented by Russian state-run media to justify Moscow's intervention and cause alarm in Russian speaking areas.

Moscow blames Right Sector for a shooting on Easter Sunday morning, when at least three people were killed at a checkpoint manned by armed separatists. Right Sector denies involvement, while Kiev said Russia provoked the violence.

One European diplomat said the Geneva deal was a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to buy time and undermine momentum towards tougher sanctions: "Talks and compromises are just part of his tactics," said the diplomat. "He wants to have Ukraine."