Ukraine tycoon calls for action against rebels

2014-05-20 15:35
(Nicholas Kamm, AFP)

(Nicholas Kamm, AFP)

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Mariupol - Ukraine's richest man called on Tuesday for workers to rally against the pro-Russian insurgency in the east, in an impassioned plea for an end to the bloodshed issued just days before the country's crunch election.

The appeal by billionaire powerbroker Rinat Ahkhmetov could mark a turning point in the conflict as he wields huge influence in the east as the owner of a vast coal and steel conglomerate.

"People are tired of living in fear and terror," Akhmetov said in an open letter in which he called for peace rallies in the eastern industrial belt known as Donbass.

In his strongest statement yet against the pro-Kremlin separatists who have seized a string of towns and cities in a matter of weeks, Akhmetov warned that their actions would lead to "genocide".

Fears for the very survival of Ukraine have mounted since armed rebels launched an uprising against Kiev's caretaker government in April, emboldened by Russia's much-criticised seizure of Crimea.

The Ukrainian government hailed Akhmetov's intervention, with Interior Minister Arsen Avakov saying it will "help settle our differences and let our rifles gather dust".

Troops 'preparing departure'

In another move which could ease tensions ahead of Sunday's vote, the Kremlin - accused by many of fomenting the insurgency - said it has ordered its troops near the border with Ukraine to return to their bases.

The defence ministry said its troops were preparing their departure on Tuesday, after both Washington and NATO - which noted it was the third time Moscow had announced a pullback - said they saw no sign of a withdrawal.

The presence of Russian troops near the border- estimated to number 40 000 - has raised deep concerns in the West, and NATO's chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday that a real withdrawal would be an "important contribution to de-escalating the crisis".

But a senior US official said Washington would want to see "clear, firm evidence of this move before we make any judgement".

In turn, Russia's army chief Valery Gerasimov complained to NATO about the alliance's activities on his country's borders, saying "it does not contribute to security in Europe".

Fearful that Russia could roll into Ukraine as it did in Crimea in March, the US and NATO have sent troops to Poland and the Baltic states and deployed warships in the region.

The Kremlin has denied any direct role in the uprising in the east, where rebels have declared sovereignty in the industrial hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk in defiance of Kiev and the West.

But on Monday it called for Ukraine's pro-Western government to halt what it described as a "punitive operation" against the insurgents.

Ukraine's election is seen in the West as crucial to ending a crisis that has taken on Cold War proportions since Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych was forced out after months of pro-European protests.

In his statement, Akhmetov - once Yanukovych's main financier - said "millions" were ready to join peace rallies in opposition to the rebels.

"They are tired of going outside and coming under gunfire," he said, accusing the rebels of doing nothing for the areas under their control and instead roaming the streets with assault rifles and grenade launchers engaging in "banditry and looting".

Russia has recently rolled back its vehement opposition to the vote, although some analysts warn that it will still not recognised the outcome.

Election won't produce 'miracle'

And UN assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic cautioned Monday against expecting that the election would produce a "miracle" for Ukraine.

In an interview with AFP in Kiev, Simonovic also warned of a risk of a major exodus from rebel-held areas because of the near collapse of basic services there.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk acknowledged it could be difficult to organise polling in some rebel-held districts but said it would not have any influence on the vote.

"The election will take place and we will have a legitimate president," he said.

Still, it remains unclear how much credibility the poll will have, given the continued fighting that the UN says has already cost around 130 lives.

Ukraine's military has so far failed to dislodge the rebels from their strongholds and suffered a number of humiliating setbacks since it launched an offensive in the east in mid-April.

The international community is pushing for a negotiated settlement to the conflict under a peace roadmap sponsored by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Two rounds of so-called national unity dialogue have been held under OSCE auspices but Kiev's leaders have refused to invite the separatists, saying they will not negotiate with "terrorists."

Read more on:    un  |  nato  |  us  |  russia  |  ukraine  |  ukraine protests
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