Armoured vehicles seized by pro-Russian protesters

Ukraine's military operation against anti-government protesters in the Russian-speaking east of the country appears to be unravelling into a messy flop.

The very first attempt by the Ukrainian security forces to make a show of force ended in an embarrassing fiasco, with pro-Russian militia taking over their armoured vehicles.

Paratroopers’ defection

The “anti-terrorist operation” announced by Kiev two days ago, went into an active phase on Wednesday with a column of airborne, armoured, combat vehicles rolling into Kramatorsk, a town in the rebellious Donetsk region. However, paramilitary protesters who control the town stopped the column and persuaded the paratroopers to switch sides.

Flying the Russian flag, the column drove to the city of Sloviansk, a stronghold of protests some 20 km away, and parked outside the city hall occupied by militia.

“When we saw that they are not terrorists or separatists, but peaceful residents who confront us, we decided we will not fight them,” a serviceman told the Russian RIA Novosti news agency.

TV footage from Sloviansk showed about a dozen armoured vehicles flying the Russian national flag and the flag of the Russian airborne forces neatly ranked in front of the city hall.

Later on Wednesday militia leaders in Sloviansk said about 300 paratroopers agreed to lay down their arms and leave the city, while another 60 joined the protesters.

Struggling to explain the humiliating loss of face, defence officials in Kiev first said it was a clever ruse by the military to infiltrate the “terrorists,” then argued that the vehicles were a Russian invading force, before finally admitting that six of its armoured personnel carriers had been seized by pro-Russian “separatists” with the help of “Russian agents.”

Reports of a gun battle on Tuesday at an airfield near Kramatorsk, in which several people had been killed, were not confirmed.

Ahead of crucial four-party talks on the Ukraine crisis in Geneva on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on telephone that “the sharp aggravation of the conflict has put [Ukraine] on the brink of civil war.”

Both leaders stressed the importance of the coming talks between the Foreign Ministers of Russia, the United States, the European Union and Ukraine in Geneva.

Mr. Putin and Ms. Merkel “expressed the hope that the meeting in Geneva will send a clear signal to help bring the situation into a peaceful channel.”

Kiev showed no sign of backing away from a military crackdown on pro-Russian protesters. On Wednesday, the Ukrainian Parliament at a closed door session approved government plans for the “anti-terrorist operation” in the east.

Meanwhile, the lawmakers of Transdniester, a Russian-speaking breakaway region of Moldova that borders southern Ukraine, have asked Russia to recognise their independence.

In a letter to Mr. Putin, the lawmakers referred to a referendum held in Transdniester in 2006, in which 97 per cent of the region’s residents voted for independence from Moldova.

Russia has so far refused to recognise Transdniester’s separation from Moldova and has partnered the U.S. and the EU in efforts to heal the split.

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