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Ukraine Military Clashes With Pro-Russia Militants in East

The Ukrainian military stormed an airport 25 miles north of this city on Tuesday, beginning what the president called a military operation to confront pro-Russian militants in the eastern part of the country.

A column of armored personnel carriers flying the Ukrainian flag entered the airport late in the afternoon, local reporters there said. The Ukrainian soldiers quickly took control of the facility, driving the separatists outside the field's perimeter.

At length the commander of the Ukranian operation, Gen. Vasily Krutov, approached the crowd of about 500 gathered behind a barbed wire fence to urge the militants to disperse, to little or no effect. As he was walking away he was roughed up, people in the crowd said, shoved hard enough that his hat fell off.

The situation, described by local reporters as a "mob scene," persisted throughout the afternoon, with the crowd occasionally surging forward through breaks in the fence and soldiers firing into the ground. Two people were injured by the shots, people in the pro-Russian crowd said.

The military movements, which the Ukrainian authorities said were the first in a campaign to drive separatists from government buildings in as many as 10 cities in eastern Ukraine, suggested that Kiev had overcome fears that a strong military response could quickly lead to heavy civilian casualties and play into Moscow's narrative that Russian-speakers are in need of protection.

Reinforcing that concern, Russian television broadcast images of helicopters and warplanes in the vicinity of the airport, which separatists seized on Sunday. Russian news media, citing members of the armed opposition to Kiev, reported that several members of a pro-Russian militia had been injured at the airfield in firefights with the Ukrainian military. Later, Russian news media reported four fatalities in the vicinity of the airport.

The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement Tuesday saying it was "deeply concerned" by the reports on Russian television, which could not be independently confirmed. Russia's prime minister, Dmitri A. Medvedev, said on Facebook that "Ukraine is on the brink of civil war -- it's frightening." He warned the authorities in Kiev of "terrible turmoil" if they continued to press the attack.

General Krutov confirmed late Tuesday afternoon that Ukrainian forces had begun carrying out military operations in the area, including the retaking of the airfield. After his statements, masked gunmen at checkpoints in the city prohibited civilian vehicles from leaving Slovyansk, citing Ukrainian military movements on the highway outside the city.

In Slovyansk, an ambulance with its siren wailing drove out of the city on the road toward the airfield.

Seemingly poking the Kremlin in the eye, the head of the Ukrainian National Security Council, Andriy Parubiy, sent out a message on Twitter saying that veterans of the uprising in Kiev, many of whom were members of right-wing nationalist groups, were poised to join the fight. "Reserve unit of National Guard formed from #Maidan Self-defense volunteers was sent to the front line this morning," he wrote.

The first indication that the operation represented more than just words this time was a modest Ukrainian military checkpoint established on a highway north of the town of Slovyansk, which has been controlled by militants since Saturday.

Witnesses said a dozen armored personnel carriers with Ukrainian flags parked on the highway about 25 miles north of the city. There were no credible reports of confrontations with the well-armed and apparently Russian-backed forces in the town.

[Source: By Andrew E. Kramer, The New York Times, Slovyansk, 15Apr14]

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Ukraine Unrest
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