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Clashes In Eastern Ukraine Reportedly Turn Deadly


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Arun Rath is away. I'm Tess Vigeland. The crisis in Eastern Ukraine seems to be worsening. The government in Kiev says it is prepared for a large-scale assault on separatists who have taken over government buildings in cities near the Russian border. Clashes between pro-Russian forces and the Ukrainian government turned deadly in the City of Slavyansk. NPR's Ari Shapiro is in Donetsk and he joins us now with the latest. Ari, tell us what happened overnight.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Well Tess, you remember when we spoke yesterday we were discussing pro-Russian separatists who had barricaded themselves in Slavyansk along with a few other cities. And this morning in Slavyansk, Ukrainian special forces staged what they called an anti-terror operation. Gunfire was exchanged. People were killed on both sides. The government says it has reclaimed the city but now this is no longer a standoff. It is a military clash where people have been killed.

VIGELAND: And, Ari, Slavyansk is not the only city where these armed separatists have claimed government buildings, right?

SHAPIRO: Right. Just over the weekend we've seen actions in a large number of small Eastern Ukrainian cities, places Americans would not have heard the names of before like Yenakiieve and Kramatorsk. These are generally industrial towns with strong pro-Russian sentiment. For example, Yenakiieve is where the ousted president Victor Yanukovych was born. But there's no question that in the last 48 hours the separatists have expanded their footprint and the government has made it very clear they are not going to tolerate that.

VIGELAND: What exactly are they saying they plan to do?

SHAPIRO: Well, Ukraine's president says if protesters do not lay down their weapons by tomorrow, the military will launch a large-scale assault. The government sees parallels with what happened last month in the Crimea Peninsula. And the government is promising that they will not allow Russia to annex Eastern Ukraine the way they did Crimea.

President Oleksandr Turchynov explicitly blamed Moscow for these flare-ups saying: The blood of Ukrainian heroes has been shed in a war which the Russian federation is waging against Ukraine. He says if militants give up their weapons they will not be prosecuted.

VIGELAND: But this isn't the first time the government has given that kind of ultimatum, is it?

SHAPIRO: That's right. Last week Kiev set a 48-hour deadline for protesters to leave the buildings that they were occupying. The protesters stayed put, the deadline passed, Kiev did not follow through. But this situation really feels very different. And there's just a much larger, more coordinated footprint in Eastern Ukraine right now than there was a week ago. It feels like a fundamentally different situation.

VIGELAND: Ari, you mentioned that it does feel different today than it did even yesterday. How does that manifest?

SHAPIRO: People in this city tend to have pro-Russian sentiments but they also tend to have anti-violent sentiments. And so people have taken over these buildings for the last week and most people in the Donetsk reason seem not to mind one way or the other, whether they sympathized with them or disagreed with them.

But the prospect of a large-scale military incursion really kind of has people scared. My taxi driver today asked me I was going to Slavyansk tomorrow. I said, I may, and he went, boom, boom, boom in his limited English.

VIGELAND: Well, Ari, what has the response been from Moscow.

SHAPIRO: The Russian government insists that the Kremlin is not orchestrating this. The foreign ministry in Moscow called Kiev's plans for military action a criminal act. Russia is calling on the West to intercede with its ally Ukraine to prevent what Russia called a civil war in Ukraine.

VIGELAND: NPR's Ari Shapiro speaking with us from Donetsk in Ukraine. Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Tess. Good to talk with you.

VIGELAND: And the U.N. Security Council will meet in an emergency session later today to discuss the crisis in Eastern Ukraine. That meeting comes at the request of the Russian government.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.