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Unmarked armoured vehicles carrying Russian flags spotted as Ukraine increases military action

Both sides are upping the ante as talks planned for tomorrow.

A pro-Russian activist makes barricades in eastern Ukraine.
A pro-Russian activist makes barricades in eastern Ukraine.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

AT LEAST THREE unmarked armoured personnel carriers bearing the Russian flag drove through the eastern Ukraine town of Kramatorsk on Wednesday, a day after authorities in Kiev launched an operation to oust pro-Moscow separatists.

Dozens of armed men in camouflage were seated on top of the vehicles as they drove through the town accompanied by a military truck.

About 20 pro-Russian protesters armed with Kalashnikov rifles have also entered the mayor’s office in Ukraine’s eastern industrial city of Donetsk.

The men, who met no resistance from the building’s security personnel, said their only demand was for the heavily Russified region to stage a referendum on turning Ukraine into a federation with broader local rights.

It comes as Russian leader Vladimir Putin warned that Ukraine is on the verge of civil war after the Kiev government sent in troops against pro-Moscow separatists in the east of the country.

“The Russian president remarked that the sharp escalation of the conflict has placed the country, in effect, on the verge of civil war,” the Kremlin said in a statement on telephone talks between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But the leaders both “emphasised the importance” of planned four-way talks on Ukraine happening tomorrow between top diplomats of Russia, the European Union, the United States and Ukraine.

Ukraine pushed tanks towards a flashpoint eastern city on Tuesday to quash a separatist surge backed by Moscow, a high-risk operation that was sharply condemned by the Kremlin but won Washington’s support.

Ukraine Pro-Russian people walk towards the airport in Kramatorsk. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The 20 tanks and armoured personnel carriers sent to Slavyansk were the most forceful response yet by the Western-backed government in Kiev to the pro-Kremlin militants’ occupation of state buildings in nearly 10 cities across Eastern Ukraine.

“They must be warned that if they do not lay down their arms, they will be destroyed,” Ukrainian Security Service General Vasyl Krutov told a group of reporters tracking the sudden tank movements.

‘Untenable’ situation 

He insisted that the militants were receiving support from several hundred soldiers from the Russian army’s Main Intelligence Directorate that had been dispatched to Slavyansk and surrounding villages.

The economically depressed industrial city of 100,000 has effectively been under the control of separatist gunmen since Saturday.

Ukrainian troops were also helicoptered into a military aerodrome at Kramatorsk, south of Slavyansk which the interior ministry said was “liberated” without any casualties.

However pro-Russia activist Oleg Issanka told AFP that the troops had opened fire injuring two people.

The Kremlin statement described the actions of the Ukrainian army in eastern Ukraine as an “anti-constitutional course to use force against peaceful protest actions”.

Ukraine Ukrainian army troops receive ammunition. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Kiev’s response to the eastern insurgency prompted Putin to tell UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that Moscow “expects clear condemnation from the United Nations and the international community of the anti-constitutional actions” by Ukraine.

Ban in turn “expressed his alarm about the highly volatile situation in eastern Ukraine” and told the Russian leader that everyone involved needed to “work to de-escalate the situation”, his office said.

But the White House described Ukraine’s military operation as a “measured” response to a lawless insurgency that had put the government in an “untenable” situation.

‘Frank’ Putin-Obama talks

The rapid turn of events on the ground was preceded by a telephone conversation Monday between US President Barack Obama and Putin that the White House described as “frank and direct”.

The Kremlin chief continued to reject any links to the Russian-speaking gunmen who have proclaimed the creation of their own independent republic and asked Putin to send in the 40,000 troops now massed along Russia’s border with Ukraine.

But Obama accused Moscow of supporting “armed pro-Russian separatists who threaten to undermine and destabilise the government of Ukraine”.

© – AFP 2014

Read: Ukrainian leader says Russia wants to set southeast ‘on fire’ >

Read: EU to ‘take stock’ of its relationship with Russia in Ukraine crisis talks >

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