Ukraine mayor shot as US imposes new sanctions on Russia

2014-04-28 16:42

The mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city was shot in the back and pro-Russia insurgents seized more government buildings as the US hit Russia with more sanctions for allegedly fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Armed insurgents tacitly backed by Moscow are seeking more autonomy in the region – possibly even independence or annexation with Russia. Ukraine’s acting government and the West have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest, which they fear Moscow could use as a pretext for an invasion.

Last month, Russia annexed Crimea weeks after seizing control of the Black Sea peninsula.

In a bid to ratchet up the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Barack Obama’s government levied new sanctions on seven Russian officials and 17 companies with links to Putin’s inner circle. The US is also revoking licences for high-tech items that could be used by the Russian military.

The European Union agreed today to impose sanctions on another 15 Russian and Ukrainian individuals for their role in the Ukraine crisis.

Hennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, was shot in the back this morning, underwent surgery and “doctors are fighting for his life,” city hall said.

Officials have not commented on who could be behind the attack.

Kernes was a staunch opponent of the pro-West Maidan movement that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych in February and was widely viewed as the organiser of activists sent to Kiev from eastern Ukraine to harass those demonstrators.

But he has since softened his stance toward the new Kiev government. At a meeting of eastern Ukrainian leaders and acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk earlier this month, Kernes insisted he does not support the pro-Russia insurgents and backed a united Ukraine.

Kharkiv is in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia gunmen have seized government buildings and police stations, set up roadblocks or staged protests to demand greater autonomy or outright annexation by Russia. But unlike the neighbouring Donetsk region, Kharkiv has been largely unaffected by the insurgency and Kernes has been credited for this. Its regional administration building was briefly seized earlier this month but promptly cleared of pro-Russia protesters.

Masked militants with automatic weapons today seized another city hall building and a police station in eastern Ukraine, this time in Kostyantynivka, 160km from the Russian border. The city is 35km south of Slovyansk, a major city that has been in insurgents’ hands for more than three weeks now.

After the seizure, about 15 armed men guarded the city hall building. Some posed for pictures with residents while others distributed St George’s ribbons, the symbol of the pro-Russia movement.

Russia announced new military exercises along its border with Ukraine last week, unnerving Ukraine and the West. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) has said Russia has up to 40 000 troops stationed in regions along the border.

Moscow today turned down Kiev’s request to visit the military exercises. Russia’s foreign ministry said the Geneva accord that Ukraine and Russia signed earlier this month do not contain any restrictions of what the Russian army can do on its own territory.

Meanwhile, the increasingly ruthless pro-Russia insurgency is turning to an ominous new tactic: kidnapping. About 40 people are being held hostage in makeshift jails in Slovyansk – including journalists, pro-Ukraine activists and seven military observers from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe, Ukraine’s Security Service today.

The German government decried the seizure of the European military observers and called for their immediate release. Eight observers, including three German officers, were detained on Friday on allegations they were spying for Nato. One Swedish officer among them was released yesterday.

Pro-Russia militants in camouflage and black balaclavas paraded some of the captive military observers before the media yesterday. They also showed three Ukrainian security guards bloodied, blindfolded, stripped of their trousers and shoes, their arms bound with packing tape.

German captive Colonel Axel Schneider spoke at yesterday’s news conference – under armed guard – saying they were on an OSCE diplomatic mission and were not spies.

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