Ukraine forces kill up to 5 rebels

Troops killed the pro-Moscow rebels on Thursday as they closed in on their stronghold.

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

SLAVIANSK/ST PETERSBURG - Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels on Thursday as they closed in on the separatists' military stronghold in the east and Russia launched army drills near the border in response, raising fears its troops would invade.

Under an international accord signed in Geneva last week, illegal armed groups in Ukraine, including the rebels occupying about a dozen public buildings in the largely Russian-speaking east, are supposed to disarm and go home.

But they have shown few signs of doing so and on Thursday the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said its forces backed by the army had removed three checkpoints manned by armed groups in the separatist-controlled city of Slaviansk.

"During the armed clash up to five terrorists were eliminated," it said in a statement, adding that one person had been wounded on the side of the government forces.

A rebel spokeswoman in Slaviansk said two fighters had died in a clash in the same area, northeast of the city centre.

The Kremlin has built up forces on Ukraine's border - estimated by NATO officials at up to 40,000 troops - and maintains it has the right to protect Russian-speakers if they come under threat, a reason it gave for annexing the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last month.

In St Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if the authorities in Kiev had used the army in eastern Ukraine, this would be a very serious crime against its own people.

"It is just a punitive operation and it will of course incur consequences for the people making these decisions, including (an effect) on our interstate relations," Putin said in a televised meeting with regional media.

His spokesman said later that the violence threw into doubt the legitimacy of a presidential election planned by the pro-Western transitional authorities in Kiev for May 25.

Reuters journalists saw a Ukrainian detachment with five armoured personnel carriers take over a checkpoint on a road north of Slaviansk in the late morning after it was abandoned by separatists who set tyres alight to cover their retreat.

However, two hours later the troops pulled back and it was unclear if Kiev would risk storming Slaviansk, a city of 130,000 that has become the military stronghold of a movement seeking annexation by Moscow of Ukraine's industrialised east.

"FINISH WHAT WE HAVE STARTED"

At another checkpoint set up by the Ukrainian military, a soldier said they were there to instil law and order.

"Those separatists, they violated the constitution, they are torturing the country, they violated laws, they do not recognise the authority of police, so the army had to move in and we will finish what we have started so help me God," he said.

The Geneva agreement, signed by Russia, the United States, Ukraine and the European Union, was already in trouble as Kiev launched its offensive to regain control of the east.

Moscow and the West have put the onus on each other to ensure the accord is implemented on the ground. US President Barack Obama said earlier he was poised to impose new sanctions on Russia if it did not act fast to end the armed stand-off.

Putin said sanctions were "dishonourable" and destroyed the global economy but that so far the damage had not been critical.

Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow had begun military drills near the border with Ukraine, where it has deployed tens of thousands of troops, in response to "Ukraine's military machine" and NATO exercises in eastern Europe.

"Apart from that, the air force will conduct flights to train for manoeuvres along the state borders," Shoigu said. Two local residents in areas near the Ukrainian border told Reuters they had spotted formations of attack helicopters in the air.

Moscow also flexed its economic muscles in its worst stand-off with the West since the Cold War, with the government suggesting foreign firms which pull out of the country may not be able to get back in. A source at Gazprom said the gas exporter had slapped an additional $11.4 billion bill on Kiev.

Washington accuses Moscow of fomenting unrest in the east, where heavily armed separatists have occupied buildings since April 6. Russia denies it is responsible for unrest and counters that Europe and the United States are supporting what it considers an illegitimate government in Kiev.

Obama said the Russian leadership was not abiding by the spirit or the letter of the Geneva agreement so far. "We have prepared for the possibility of applying additional sanctions," he told a news conference in Japan.

US TROOPS ARRIVE IN POLAND

So far, the United States and EU have imposed visa bans and asset freezes on a few Russians in protest at Moscow's annexation last month of Crimea from Ukraine.

In NATO member Poland, the first group of a contingent of around 600 US soldiers arrived on Wednesday, part of an effort by Washington to reassure eastern European allies who are worried by the Russian build-up near Ukraine's borders.

Acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov called for the eastern offensive on Tuesday after the apparent torture and murder of a town councillor from his own party, whose body was found on Saturday near Slaviansk.

A local opposition activist called on the police to clear up the death of Volodymyr Rybak, a member of the Batkivshchyna party who had remained loyal to Kiev. He disappeared after being filmed trying to take down a separatist flag while trying to enter town hall in Horlivka, a town near Slaviansk.

"He was bruised and punctured from head to toe ... it's clear they tortured him," said Aleksander Yaroshenko, a family friend who accompanied Rybak's widow when she identified his body at the morgue. "The police have lots of details, they have CCTV footage, they should know who did this," he told Reuters.

In an address to the nation on Thursday, Turchinov said: "Armed criminals have taken over buildings, are taking citizens, Ukrainian and foreign journalists, hostage and murdering Ukrainian patriots...At the level of the state, Russia is supporting terrorism in our country."

The government said the city hall in another eastern town, Mariupol, which had been seized by separatists, was back under central control. But a separatist crowd later surrounded the building, patrolled by police but otherwise apparently empty.

Kiev also reported a shootout overnight in another part of the east where a Ukrainian soldier was wounded. Pro-Russian separatists in Slaviansk are holding three journalists, including US citizen Simon Ostrovsky.

Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, slid into unrest late last year when Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich rejected a pact to build closer ties with Europe. Protesters took over central Kiev and he fled in February. Days later, Russian troops seized control of Crimea.

NO WAY BACK?

The Ukrainian defence ministry confirmed its involvement in the operation around Slaviansk on Thursday, saying the troops involved were airborne units with experience of such tasks from international peacekeeping missions.

"The morale of our forces will allow them to completely fulfil their task of defending Ukraine," it said.

Unarmed mediators from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe are in eastern Ukraine trying to persuade pro-Russian gunmen to go home, in line with the Geneva accord.

Reuters reporters have not been able to establish that any Russian troops or special forces members are in the region, though Kiev and Western powers say they have growing evidence that Moscow has a covert presence. Masked gunmen in the east, widely referred to as "green men", wear uniforms without insignia.