The broken window of a police jeep at a military base in Mariupol, Ukraine, after an attack by rebels. (AFP)
Mariupol ( Ukraine), April 17 (Reuters): Separatists attacked a Ukrainian national guard base overnight and Kiev said three of them were killed, the worst bloodshed yet in a 10-day pro-Russian uprising.
It was accompanied by tough words from Vladimir Putin that overshadowed crisis talks.
Ukrainian, Russian and western diplomats held an emergency meeting in Geneva, seeking to resolve a confrontation that has seen pro-Russian fighters seize swathes of Ukraine while Moscow masses tens of thousands of troops on the frontier.
The US, Russia, Ukraine and the EU were working on a joint statement on the crisis but had not reached agreement and talks were continuing, a western official said.
Seeking to put pressure on Moscow, Nato announced it was sending naval ships to the Baltic. The US, in a move to reassure allies, approved more non-lethal military support for Ukraine, including medical and welfare supplies.
The Russian President, who overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy last month by declaring Russia had a right to intervene in neighbouring countries and annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region, accused the authorities in Kiev of plunging the country into an “abyss”.
| Putin at his annual televised question-and-answer session with the Russian public in Moscow on Thursday. (AFP)
Kiev fears he will use any violence as a pretext to launch an invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.
“Instead of realising that there is something wrong with the Ukrainian government and attempting dialogue, they made more threats of force ... This is another very grave crime by Kiev’s current leaders,” Putin said in his annual televised question-and-answer session with the Russian public.
“I hope that they are able to realise what a pit, what an abyss the current authorities are in and dragging the country into,” said Putin, who reserved the right to use military force while still saying he preferred dialogue.
In Kiev, Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said he expected little from the Geneva meeting because “I don’t trust the Russian side”.
In Moscow, Russian shares and the rouble rose, however, as investors drew hope from the talks in Geneva, shrugging off Putin’s remarks about his “right” to send troops to Ukraine.
Ukraine, which sees Moscow’s hand behind separatist uprisings in the east, said it would impose stricter border controls on Russian men seeking to enter the country. Russia said it might retaliate.
At the Ukrainian national guard headquarters in Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, there was clear evidence the building had come under attack.
A grey police jeep was inside the compound this morning with broken windows, flat tyres and bent doors. The gates of the compound had been flattened. There were shell casings outside the gates and several unused petrol bombs.
“They came here around 8.15pm, demanding that we surrender our weapons and join the people. There were some women with them, but then they left,” said police Major Oleksandr Kolesnichenko, deputy commander of the base.
“Then they used a truck to break through the gate. There was some incoming fire. I could not see who was shooting — it was dark,” he said. “We fired first in the air. We fired warning shots after they entered the compound. We had no casualties.”
A separatist representative, who gave his name only as Sergei, said there had been a peaceful rally at the base.
“We had a peaceful rally to urge the police to join the people. The commander of the compound warned he would order troops to shoot to kill.”
“Then there was shooting. Some people came with Molotov cocktails. We have verified that one person is dead and more than 10 wounded.”
Interior minister Arsen Avakov said an armed group of about 300 separatists attacked the base with guns and petrol bombs. Three separatists were killed and 13 wounded, he said. No guardsmen were hurt.
The clash took place hours after a modest Ukrainian military operation to recapture territory elsewhere from armed pro-Russian rebels ended in disarray yesterday, with troops surrendering rather than open fire.
Putin’s televised chat, in a talk show format with satellite link-ups with applauding audiences across Russia, lasted for several hours.
His words were clearly directed both at a domestic audience and at a world still grappling with the implications of his new doctrine, which the West says dispenses with customary limits on the use of armed force.
A self-confident Putin pointed to authorisation he secured in March from the mostly appointed upper house of parliament to use force in Ukraine, though he said he preferred negotiations.