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Ukraine crisis: Militants, army face off in east amid soaring te - 12 News KBMT and K-JAC. News, Weather and Sports for SE Texas

Ukraine crisis: Militants, army face off in east amid soaring tensions

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By Laura Smith-Spark and Tim Lister
 
KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (CNN) -- Helicopters and a fighter jet circled the skies above the tense eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk on Wednesday, while on the streets below a column of tanks rolled through the city -- one with a Russian flag affixed.

A convoy of armored personnel carriers also entered the city of Slaviansk, some carrying Russian or regional separatist flags.

Events are moving fast in Ukraine's restive Donetsk region, and confusion is rife.

According to one state-run Russian news agency, residents of Kramatorsk captured several armored vehicles from the Ukrainian army, while another said the crew of the vehicles had switched sides to join the protesters. But it's not entirely clear if that is the reason the Russian flags are on display.

In Slaviansk, north of Kramatorsk and about 100 miles from the border with Russia, pro-Russian militants now appear to be in control of the town, according to CNN's Nick Paton Walsh on the ground.

The atmosphere seemed more relaxed than it was a few days ago, with many residents apparently welcoming the presence of pro-Russian forces and their apparently seized military vehicles.

On the road toward Slaviansk, CNN's Phil Black encountered a heavily fortified and well organized police checkpoint. Attack helicopters passed overhead and a big military staging point is in operation just up the road.

Despite the military activity, there has so far been no effort to move into the town itself, he said, where the pro-Russian protesters are digging in and consolidating their power.

The unrest is a major test for the new interim government, as it seeks to hold Ukraine together ahead of elections scheduled for next month and to avoid bloodshed.

Putin: 'Brink of civil war'

The dramatic scenes come a day after armored columns rolled through the farmland of eastern Donetsk province, proudly flying Ukrainian flags as locals watched and wondered what might come next.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned then that the escalating conflict in Ukraine "essentially puts the nation on the brink of civil war."

Although Ukraine has been more subdued in its characterization -- no doubt in part because of concerns that Russia might use violence as a pretext to intervene directly -- it's clear that the leadership's patience is wearing thin.

After days of urging pro-Russian militants to vacate buildings they have seized, on Tuesday they sent in troops.

Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, announcing what he called an "anti-terrorist operation" to restore order to the country's east, saying its aim was to "stop attempts to tear Ukraine to pieces."

Some success followed -- the President's office said Ukrainian special forces had taken control of the airfield in Kramatorsk by the end of the day. Witnesses had reported hearing gunfire and the sound of aircraft apparently coming from the airfield.

But the rapidly unfolding events in Donetsk province appear to show a strategy that is faltering.

Nearly 30 armed people seized the mayor's administration building in the city of Donetsk on Wednesday, spokesman Maksim Rovinskiy said. They are demanding federalization and a new law that paves the way for a local referendum, Rovinskiy said, adding that there had been no violence.

In addition, two Ukrainian soldiers, one of them an officer, have been taken hostage by "extremists," the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Wednesday.

The soldiers were seized Tuesday near the town of Krasny Luch, in the Luhansk area, as they tried to fix a military vehicle by the roadside, the ministry said in a statement. It is working to secure their release.

Some locals gathered near Kramatorsk airfield Tuesday evening to see for themselves what was going on -- and to voice their unhappiness over the actions of the interim government in Kiev, which took power after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted following weeks of street protests.

One man told CNN the arrival of soldiers from elsewhere in the country would only deepen the divisions within Ukraine.

"We don't recognize that government's authority," he said. "We're normal people without arms; they came in on helicopters, shot at peaceful people. After all this, it's unlikely west will be friends with east."

Many protesters are calling for greater federalization, or devolution of power to the regions -- a demand Russia has also voiced and which Kiev has said it will consider. However, the Ukrainian government is determined to prevent the country from breaking up.

At the same time, while there is a strong pro-Russian sentiment in the region, it is not as widespread as was seen in Crimea -- annexed last month by Russia after a controversial referendum.



Diplomatic efforts

Amid mounting international concerns, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday that the alliance had agreed on "a package of further military measures to reinforce our collective defense" in light of the events in Ukraine.

"We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land," Rasmussen said, speaking after a meeting of NATO ambassadors in Brussels, Belgium.

He stressed that NATO backs a political solution to the crisis and urged Russia to stop destabilizing Ukraine.

"Our decisions today are about defense, deterrence and deescalation. They are entirely in line with our international commitments," he said.

"They send a clear message NATO will protect every ally and defend against any threat against our fundamental security. This is our firm commitment."

Rasmussen said NATO fully backs talks due to take place Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland, between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The West has repeatedly called on Russia to withdraw some 40,000 troops that NATO says it has massed near Ukraine's border. Moscow insists they are merely conducting military exercises.



Lavrov: 'They are spreading lies'

The pro-Russian uprising in Ukraine's east follows Russia's annexation last month Crimea, a move that emboldened other pro-Russian Ukrainians in the country's east to rise up.

Russia has said it reserves the right to intervene to protect the rights of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking Tuesday in Beijing, rejected accusations from the West that Russia is fomenting the unrest and supporting the militants.

"They make up lies to justify their aggressive plans. They are spreading lies, things that Russian Federation intended or not intended to do, alleging that Russia organized it all," he said.

"I have never heard such nonsense. What it means is to refuse one's own people the right to express their opinion and protest against lawlessness and discrimination."

During his conversation with Merkel, Putin also raised concerns about what he called an "anti-constitutional course" taken by Ukrainian authorities in Kiev to suppress protests.

Despite what Merkel's office described as "different assessments of the events on the ground in Ukraine," the focus of the conversation was on preparations for a meeting in Geneva among the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union to find a way to reduce tensions in the region, it said.

Ukraine's parliament will vote Wednesday on a draft law to boost the country's defense forces in the face of what Kiev calls increased Russian aggression.

This includes calls to reintroduce compulsory military service, which was only dropped in 2013. No details were available on who will be eligible for the draft if the law is approved.
   
 CNN's Tim Lister reported from Kramatorsk and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, Kellie Morgan, Susannah Palk and Chelsea J. Carter, as well as journalist Azad Safarov, contributed to this report.
   
 The-CNN-Wire
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