Ukraine peace deal falters as rebels show no sign of surrender

Baku: An agreement reached last week to avert wider conflict in Ukraine was faltering as the new week began, with pro-Moscow separatist gunmen showing no sign of surrendering government buildings they have seized.

Washington says it will hold Moscow responsible and impose new economic sanctions if the separatists do not clear out of government buildings they have occupied across swathes of eastern Ukraine over the past two weeks. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was due in Kiev later on Monday.

Kiev and Moscow traded accusations over a deadly shooting on Easter Sunday morning, when at least three people were killed at a checkpoint manned by armed separatists. Moscow and its separatist allies accused Ukrainian nationalists of attacking the checkpoint; Kiev said Russia had provoked the violence.

In a later incident, the Ukrainian defense ministry said gunmen on motorcycles fired on an army checkpoint between Donetsk and Slaviansk shortly after dark on Sunday. The troops opened fire, wounding one attacker and capturing two, it said.

Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States signed off on an agreement in Geneva on Thursday, designed to lower tension in the worst confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War. The agreement calls for occupied buildings to be vacated under the auspices of envoys from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a security body. All sides are meant to refrain from force.

But no sooner had the accord been signed than both sides accused the other of breaking it, while the pro-Moscow rebels said the pledge to withdraw from occupied buildings was not binding on them.

“Steps are being taken – above all by those who seized power in Kiev – not only that do not fulfill, but that crudely violate the Geneva agreement,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday, describing the attack on the separatist checkpoint as a crime.

President Vladimir Putin overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy by announcing last month that Russia has the right to intervene on the territory of its neighbors to protect Russian speakers. He then seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

Moscow has since massed tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, and Kiev and its Western allies say Russian agents are directing the uprising in the east, including the “green men” – heavily armed, masked gunmen in unmarked uniforms.

In his latest move, likely to be seen by the West as a further threat to the post-Cold War order, Putin signed a law on Monday making it easier for Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union to obtain Russian citizenship.

Eastern Ukraine is largely Russian speaking and many residents are deeply suspicious of the pro-European government that took power in Kiev in February when Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich fled the country after mass protests.

Separatists have declared an independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk” in the east’s biggest province and have named themselves to official posts in towns and cities, setting up checkpoints and flying Russian flags over government buildings.

Ukraine announced an “anti-terrorist” operation to retake the territory last week, but that modest effort largely collapsed in disarray when a column of paratroops surrendered rifle parts and some armored vehicles to a separatist crowd.

Kiev has declared an “Easter truce”, though it is far from clear it could muster any real force if it tried. The army is ill-equipped, untested and untrained for domestic operations, while the government in Kiev doubts the loyalty of the police.

SOURCE: AZERI PRESS NEWS AGENCY