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Ukraine Presses Pro-Russia Militants After Fighting Spreads to a Port City

Ukraine's security forces pressed their assault to try to reclaim the pro-Russian stronghold of Slovyansk on Saturday, even as the rebels freed seven European military observers and the Kremlin cited the deaths of dozens of people in Odessa as proof that Ukraine could no longer protect its citizens.

The Ukrainian troops built on recent advances into Slovyansk's outskirts, entering the neighboring town of Kramatorsk after firefights with armed rebels. The Interior Ministry said the forces had recaptured the main state security building there and a television tower for the town, allowing for the resumption of Ukrainian television broadcasts that had been replaced by Russian ones.

But even with the military advances, the violence on Friday in Odessa, far west of the country's restive eastern region, was a measure of how far events have spiraled out of the authorities' control. It also added to pressure from Russia, which has long said it could intervene in Ukraine if it believed Russian-leaning residents were in danger. Odessa's population includes many Russian speakers sympathetic to Moscow.

An official in the city said 46 people had died as a result of street battles between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine groups; many of the dead were pro-Russia militants who had retreated into a trade union building that was then set on fire. If confirmed, the death toll would be the highest since the struggles in February between pro-Europe demonstrators and the pro-Russia Ukrainian government of the ousted President Viktor F. Yanukovych.

Until Friday, Odessa, a Black Sea port in southern Ukraine, had been mostly calm. Amid the chaos, which included the lobbing of firebombs, it was not immediately clear who had started the blaze, though a report from a pro-Ukraine national newspaper, Ukrainska Pravda, suggested that Ukrainian activists had done nothing to help those inside. "As the building burned, the Ukrainian activists continued to scream mottos about Putin and sing the Ukrainian national anthem," the article said, referring to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Most victims were apparently overcome by smoke or burned, but several were reported to have died leaping from the flames.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry blamed the day of violence on provocateurs "paid generously by the Russian special services," while Russia's Foreign Ministry blamed a Ukrainian nationalist group, Right Sector.

Ihor Borshulyak, the city's regional prosecutor, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that 144 people had been arrested and that one of several inquiries would look into whether the police had failed to execute their duties. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov fired the local police chief on Saturday.

The European Union called for an independent investigation into the deaths, and Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States condemned violence by militant groups on all sides. "That includes the violence of anyone who lit a fire and caused the death of those 38 people or more in the building in Odessa," he said.

Moscow used the violence in Odessa to again denounce the idea of holding nationwide elections in Ukraine on May 25 to select a new president and vote on constitutional reforms. A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, said any discussion of proceeding with the vote would be "absurd." The United States and Germany have threatened new sanctions against Russia if it disrupts the elections.

Mr. Peskov also said Russia would no longer be able to tell the hundreds of Russian speakers who he said were calling for help not to take up arms when there was "a direct threat to their lives."

"The authorities in Kiev are not only directly responsible, they are direct accomplices in these criminal actions," he said. "Their hands are full of blood."

Mr. Peskov said the United States and the European Union also bore some responsibility for the violence, because of what he called their endorsement of Ukraine's military operations against pro-Russia activists.

On Russian state-run television on Saturday, leading politicians and commentators said repeatedly that war crimes were being committed and that victims in Ukraine needed protection. But despite that steady public drumbeat, and the vigor of Mr. Peskov's statements, analysts said the Kremlin did not seem poised to intervene militarily at this point.

Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said he believed that Mr. Putin was aware of the high costs of a war to take control of economically troubled Ukraine.

"He is much more likely to wait, rather than jump the gun to intervene," Mr. Trenin said. In pressuring Ukraine to put off the presidential election, he said, the Kremlin might be banking on the West eventually growing weary of the conflict, allowing Moscow to use its influence to shape a government more to its liking.

All the leading candidates for president visited Odessa on Saturday, expressing sympathy and sorrow for those who died.

In the east, the troops and armored vehicles advancing toward Slovyansk on Saturday tightened their cordon by taking over checkpoints on roads that lead to the town, positioning themselves beside newly tilled fields and orchards in bloom.

Vladimir Keruchenko, a pro-Russia militant interviewed at a checkpoint, said shots had been fired from the heavy cannons on the Ukrainian Army's armored vehicles, though that could not be confirmed. Ukrainian soldiers also took over a roadblock north of Slovyansk, close enough to see its outlying buildings.

Published photographs showed burned buses in Kramatorsk and burning tire barricades in and around the town that had been erected by pro-Russian militants. At least one rebel was killed in the Ukrainian advance.

"We are not stopping," Mr. Avakov, the Ukrainian interior minister, said on Facebook.

In a diplomatic success, pro-Russia militants freed the European military observers who had been held -- four Germans, a Czech, a Dane and a Pole. Their release followed the arrival of a Kremlin envoy, Vladimir P. Lukin.

Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, said that Mr. Lukin had secured the release.

The German-led team had been detained April 25 while working, at the Ukrainian military's invitation, to assess security conditions in eastern Ukraine. The mission was part of a process approved by the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to which Russia, Ukraine and the United States belong.

Germany is seen as a central party in trying to resolve the crisis, and Mr. Putin, who values relations with Germany, had spoken of the need to release the observers.

There were indications on Saturday that the United States and Russia might be willing to try again to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Last month the two countries, with Ukraine and the European Union, reached an accord in Geneva to try to defuse the crisis, but the United States has accused Russia of not following through and using its influence to help clear pro-Russian militants from public buildings in several towns in the east.

Russia, meanwhile, had declared that the Ukrainian government offensive, and the violence in Odessa, had effectively torpedoed the Geneva accord.

But in a phone call Saturday, Mr. Kerry and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, discussed "how to find a way forward," Mr. Kerry told reporters Saturday while traveling in Africa.

Specifically, Mr. Kerry said they had discussed how the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe might "play a larger role in perhaps facilitating the de-escalation."

Mr. Lavrov, for his part, suggested the O.S.C.E. might play a mediating role within Ukraine. It appeared that Russia hoped that the O.S.C.E. might become the vehicle to push Kiev to implement that steps the Kremlin wanted from the beginning, namely wide regional autonomy. The interim Ukrainian government, with American support, has resisted such a step.

Still, Mr. Kerry's comments on Saturday reflected a shift in tone. In an appearance at the Atlantic Council in Washington on Tuesday, he had complained that Russia had taken "not one single step" to carry out the Geneva agreement.

[Source: By Alison Smale and Andrew E. Kramer, The New York Times, Kiev, 03May14]

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Ukraine Unrest
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