A Ukrainian special forces soldier at an abandoned checkpoint in Slaviansk on Thursday. (AFP)
Slaviansk (Ukraine)/St Petersburg, April 24 (Reuters): Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow separatists in the east of the country, the interior ministry said today, as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned of “consequences” if Kiev used the army against its own people.
Interior ministry forces backed by the army removed three checkpoints manned by armed groups in the separatist-controlled town of Slaviansk, the ministry said in a statement.
“During the armed clash up to five terrorists were eliminated,” it said, adding that one person had been wounded on the side of government forces.
Under an international accord signed in Geneva last week, illegal armed groups, including the rebels occupying about a dozen public buildings in the largely Russian-speaking east, are supposed to disarm and go home.
However, the Kremlin, which has deployed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border, 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, 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.
The Geneva agreement, signed by Russia, the US, Ukraine and the EU, is already in trouble as Kiev launches its offensive to regain control of the east.
East and West have put the onus on each other to ensure the accord is implemented on the ground. President Barack Obama said earlier he was poised to impose new sanctions on Moscow if it did not act fast to end the armed stand-off.
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, and a source at Gazprom saying the gas exporter had slapped an additional $11.4 billion bill on Kiev.
Washington accuses Moscow of fomenting unrest in the east. Russia denies this and counters that Europe and the US are supporting 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 said in Japan. “There’s always the possibility that Russia, tomorrow, or the next day, reverses its course and takes a different approach.” So far, the US 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.