Pro-government supporters march during a protest on April 28, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine. It was broken up shortly after by pro-Russians armed with bats and shields.
Credit: Scott Olson
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UPDATE: 4/29/14 5:00 PM ET

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UPDATE: 4/29/14 2:30 PM ET

Kerry says the US has recordings of Russia's involvement in Ukraine

A recording The Daily Beast obtained of Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks at a private meeting of the Trilateral Commission has yielded some information about the crisis in Ukraine.

The secretary's remarks seem to indicate the United States has proof of Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine because it got its hands on recorded conversations.

"Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow and everybody can tell the difference in the accents, in the idioms, in the language. We know exactly who’s giving those orders, we know where they are coming from," Kerry is quoted as saying.

Read the full piece here.

UPDATE: 4/29/14 1:30 PM ET

What is fueling the hatred in eastern Ukraine?

Tim Judah's essay in The New York Review of Books explores what is behind the hatred causing tensions in eastern Ukraine.

In eastern Ukraine there is no ethnic basis for strife, but hate is still being manufactured. Almost everyone speaks Russian, but you can describe yourself as Russian or Ukrainian along a sort of spectrum. Nor, in contrast to the Balkans, do religious differences play a part. Almost everyone is Orthodox.

Talk to people manning the anti-government barricades and taking part in the demonstrations against Kiev here, however, and one thing in particular is scary. After a day or two you realize that they all say more or less the same thing. “We want to be listened to,” people say.

Find the full essay here.

UPDATE: 4/29/14 1:00 PM ET

Why is the police force in eastern Ukraine standing by?

Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk provides excellent context for why eastern Ukraine's law enforcement is failing so badly at protecting residents:

Whether it’s protecting eastern Ukraine’s embattled pro-unity protesters or defending local administrative buildings from seizures by anti-government rebels, law enforcement here has proven largely useless. Instead, it’s playing into the hands of pro-Russian rebels, further inflaming a crisis that’s threatening to tear the country apart at the seams.

Observers say a mix of pervasive corruption, split loyalties and sense of self-preservation is to blame.

“There’s no motivation to honestly carry out their duties,” says Oksana Markeyeva, a security expert in Kyiv who researches police issues.

Ivan Varchenko, a Kharkiv councilman from the pro-government Fatherland Party, says the new, revolutionary conditions in Ukraine have caught a largely corrupt and underprepared police force by surprise.

He partly blames ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, whose support base was in the Donetsk Region.

“In reality, much of the police force we have in Ukraine today was oriented toward several specific activities: to defend the Yanukovych ‘family’ and protect oligarchs’ businesses,” Varchenko, a member of the council’s human rights committee, said in a recent interview.

“They understood that they were perfectly suited to that — to pressure local businessmen into paying bribes, for instance,” he added. “But now when they need to be fighting bandits, they’re showing their inability.”

Read the full piece here.

UPDATE: 4/29/14 12:45 PM ET

The UK and US are all over recovering assets

The FBI is setting up a "kleptocracy squad" to investigate high-level corruption in Ukraine and other parts of the world. Their first target will be the assets believed stolen by the regime of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

The announcement came at an "asset recovery forum" co-hosted by Britain and the United States on Tuesday.

Read more at the Associated Press.

UPDATE: 4/29/14 12:30 PM ET

Shots fired in Luhansk

Reuters — Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine opened fire with automatic weapons and threw stun grenades at the local police headquarters in the eastern city of Luhansk on Tuesday, a Reuters photographer said.

Around 20 gunmen shot at the building, trying to force police to surrender their weapons after separatists seized the local government headquarters, prosecutor's office and television center earlier in the day.

UPDATE: 4/29/14 12:15 PM ET

Police in eastern Ukraine are 'incapable of fulfilling their duty,' says Ukraine's acting president

Reuters — Ukraine's acting president demanded the dismissal on Tuesday of police chiefs in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, saying much of the police in the east of the country had proven incapable of fulfilling their duties.

The statement by Oleksander Turchynov followed the takeover by armed pro-Russian separatists of several state buildings in Luhansk on Tuesday, unopposed by police.

"The overwhelming majority of law enforcement bodies in the east are incapable of fulfilling their duty to defend our citizens," he said.

UPDATE: 4/29/14 11:50 AM ET

Pro-Russian separatists take over TV center

Reuters — Pro-Russian separatists took control of the regional prosecutor's office and television center in the eastern city of Luhansk on Tuesday, having earlier seized the government headquarters, a Reuters photographer said.

The photographer saw separatists inside the prosecutor's office and gunmen guarding the entrance of the television center. The gunmen said they were in control of the building and Interfax news agency said protesters had burned the Ukrainian flag.

UPDATE: 4/29/14 10:50 AM ET

OSCE plans to send more civilian monitors to eastern Ukraine

Reuters — The OSCE said on Tuesday it was pressing ahead with plans to recruit hundreds of more monitors for a civilian mission in Ukraine, despite the detention of seven military observers from a separate team captured by pro-Moscow rebels.

The 57 member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia, agreed last month to send civilian monitors to Ukraine in a bid to help defuse the crisis there. Initially numbering 100 monitors and now totaling 154, it could expand to 500.

A vacancy notice for an extra 400 monitors was issued this month and "the process of secondment/recruitment is ongoing", a spokeswoman for the European security body said in an email.

"The build-up is going on," said Roland Bless, a spokesman for Switzerland which holds the rotating chairmanship of the European security body. "Developments on the ground make it clear you need more monitoring capacity."

The mission is separate from another OSCE-linked mission of unarmed military monitors invited by Kiev, eight of whom were seized by pro-Moscow separatist rebels on Friday. One Swedish officer has been released but four Germans, a Czech, a Dane and a Pole are still being held.

The military monitors, unlike the civilians, were sent to Ukraine under OSCE rules that did not require Moscow's consent.

Russia's OSCE envoy said on Monday it had been "extremely irresponsible" to send them to the tense area, but that it would be good if they were released.

The self-declared mayor of a separatist-held town in eastern Ukraine where the men are being held said on Tuesday he would discuss their release with the West only if the European Union dropped sanctions against rebel leaders.

The rebels have described the military officers as prisoners of war and NATO spies.

The separate civilian monitoring team has avoided such high stakes drama but was involved in two security incidents on April 27 in the eastern Donetsk region. In one case, armed people cross-examined one monitoring team, accusing them of espionage and briefly holding them, the OSCE said.

UPDATE: 4/29/14 9:50 AM ET

Separatists storm Luhansk's regional government headquarters

Reuters — Hundreds of pro-Russian separatists stormed the regional government headquarters in Ukraine's eastern city of Luhansk on Tuesday, unopposed by police, and the Ukrainian government said they also planned to seize the local television center.

The government in Kyiv has all but lost control of its police forces in parts of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian activists have seized buildings in the region's second biggest city of Donetsk and several smaller towns.

"The regional leadership does not control its police force," said Stanislav Rechynsky, an aide to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. "The local police did nothing."

He added that the ministry had information that they would next try to take the local television center.

Video footage showed men, some dressed in green camouflage fatigues and holding shields, walking around what appeared to be the foyer of the building as hundreds massed outside the building's large wooden doors.

Pro-Russian separatists had previously occupied only the local security services' building in Luhansk, which they took in early April.

Here is a live stream from Luhansk.

UPDATE: 4/29/14 7:45 AM ET

Wounded mayor of Kharkiv in stable condition in Israel

Reuters — The mayor of eastern Ukraine's biggest city was in a stable condition on Tuesday in a hospital in Israel, where he was flown after being wounded in the highest-profile assassination attempt in the standoff between Kyiv and Moscow.

Gennady Kernes, one of Ukraine's most prominent Jewish politicians, was shot in the back on Monday in Kharkiv, and underwent surgery in Ukraine on Monday. Officials had said his injuries were life-threatening.

"He is stable. That is all we can say right now," a staff member at Elisha Hospital in Haifa, north Israel, told Reuters.

Israel Radio said Kernes was in Elisha's head injuries department and that doctors believed he did not require further surgery for now as his operation in Ukraine had been successful.

After protesters toppled pro-Moscow Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February, Kernes, 54, supported calls for Kharkiv to become independent from Kyiv's new, pro-European leaders.

But he changed his views after being accused of fomenting separatism and when Ukrainian police forced pro-Russian protesters out of administrative buildings in the city.

A Ukrainian local government official said Kernes was either riding his bicycle or jogging when he was shot by someone probably hidden in nearby woods. His bodyguards were following in a car but were not close enough to intervene.

UPDATE: 4/29/14 7:10 AM ET

EU ought to be ashamed, says Russia

Reuters — Russia suggested on Tuesday the European Union should be ashamed of itself for "doing Washington's bidding" by punishing Moscow with sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry said the EU sanctions imposed on 15 Russian and pro-Moscow Ukrainian officials would not ease tension in Ukraine, where the government is struggling to rein in pro-Russian separatists in southeastern regions who it says are backed by Moscow.

"Instead of forcing the Kyiv clique to sit at the table with southeastern Ukraine to negotiate the future structure of the country, our partners are doing Washington's bidding with new unfriendly gestures aimed at Russia," the Foreign Ministry said.

"If this is how someone in Brussels hopes to stabilize the situation in Ukraine, it is obvious evidence of a complete lack of understanding of the internal political situation ... and a direct invitation for the local neo-Nazis to continue to conduct lawlessness and reprisals against the peaceful population of the southeast," it said in a statement. "Are they not ashamed?"

Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said separately that US and EU sanctions were "an absolutely counterproductive, trite measure that will force the already critical situation in Ukraine into a dead end," state-run news agency RIA reported.

Russia and the West accuse one another of failing to take steps to implement an April 17 agreement to ease tension over Ukraine. Russia retaliated against visa bans and asset freezes imposed following its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region last month but has not yet announced any steps in response to the new sanctions unveiled by the United States and EU this week.

UPDATE: 4/29/14 7:00 AM ET

Separatist leader says no negotiation until sanctions are dropped

Reuters — The self-declared mayor of a separatist-held town in eastern Ukraine said on Tuesday he would discuss the release of detained military observers with the West only if the European Union dropped sanctions against rebel leaders.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the de facto mayor of Slovyansk, told Interfax news agency the imposition of visa bans and asset freezes against Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-styled People's Republic of Donetsk, and Andrei Purgin, another leader in the eastern region, "was not conducive to dialogue."

The six observers were in Ukraine under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a democracy watchdog. They were detained last week after separatists said they had found a Ukrainian spy with them.

"We will resume dialogue on the status of the prisoners of war only when the European Union rejects these sanctions," he said. "If they fail to remove the sanctions, then we will block access for EU representatives, and they won't be able to get to us. I will remind my guests from the OSCE about this."

UPDATE: 4/29/14 6:50 AM ET

EU announces its own sanctions

Reuters — The European Union imposed asset freezes and travel bans on 15 Russians and Ukrainians, including a Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Nikolayevich Kozak, over Moscow's action in Ukraine, but steered clear of any sanctions on business leaders.

The latest list included Ludmila Ivanovna Shvetsova, a deputy chairman of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, Valery Vasilevich Gerasimov, chief of staff of Russia's armed forces, as well as separatist leaders in Ukraine.

But it did not include the heads of Russian energy giants such as Rosneft's Igor Sechin, who had been included on a new US sanctions list on Monday.

The decision brings to 48 the number of people that the EU has put under sanctions for actions it says have undermined Ukraine's territorial integrity.

The EU decision coincided with an earlier White House announcement that the United States was imposing sanctions on seven Russians and 17 companies linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The United States has been much more aggressive in the penalties it has imposed on Russia than has the European Union, which depends heavily on Russia for energy and has close trading links.

The EU has so far only put sanctions on individuals, not companies. The European Commission is drawing up a list of tougher economic sanctions, possibly affecting trade or the energy or finance sectors, that could be imposed on Russia.

UPDATE: 4/28/14 5:15 PM ET

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UPDATE: 4/28/14 3:50 PM ET

Around 20 were hurt in the clashes in Donetsk, says activist

Pro-Russian separatists armed with baseball bats attacked a rally in support of Ukrainian unity in the separatist-held city of Donetsk on Monday, amid rising tension and disorder in the country's east.

A Reuters photographer saw at least 10 people with head wounds after dozens of men dressed in military fatigues tried to disrupt the rally with baseball bats, firecrackers and what appeared to be at least one stun grenade.

Donetsk is at the heart of an uprising in the east by mainly Russian-speakers trying to throw off rule from Kyiv, following the February overthrow of Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia's annexation of Crimea in March.

Diana Berg, an activist opposed to the uprising, said about 20 participants in the rally, which gathered around 2,000, had been injured, of whom 10 were being treated in hospital.

Berg said most had suffered head wounds from stones or baseball bats. A Reuters reporter said some separatists were also among the injured.

Protesters waved Ukrainian flags and chanted "Donetsk is Ukraine!" and "Putin No!" They quickly dispersed after the violence.

Nikolai Solntsev, a spokesman for the self-proclaimed "People's Republic of Donetsk", blamed the violence on "emotions," and accused the pro-Ukrainian protesters of provocation.

He called the separatists "patriots of the city of Donetsk."

"All of them believe they need to defend their land," he told Reuters.


UPDATE: 4/28/14 2:20 PM ET

Donetsk rally gets overwhelmed by violence

Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk was at the scene of a pro-Ukrainian rally in Donetsk that became the target of pro-Russia groups. He reports:

Several hundred pro-Russian thugs on Monday attacked a peaceful pro-Ukraine march in Donetsk, beating protesters with clubs, metal shafts and other crude weapons.

Police largely stood by and watched as the flood of angry, masked pro-Russians chased down their pro-Ukraine counterparts, about 1,000 of whom had gathered at a central square and set off on a march through downtown.

The march led away from the occupied regional administration building, where separatist protesters have set up their own camp.

But the thugs caught up to the rally and broke it up, sending protesters scattering in all directions.

It was not immediately clear how many people were injured. GlobalPost saw about 5 people being tended to by volunteer medics, one of them carried away on a stretcher.

After the pro-Russians dispersed the rally, they marched back through downtown chanting "Russia!" and beating their shields.

They also attacked oncoming cars they believed were pro-Ukrainian, smashing windshields and hurling stones.

While several columns of armored police had marched alongside the rally, they proved largely unable or unwilling to stem the violence.

Some appeared to openly side with the pro-Russian protesters, coordinating the collection of shields the thugs had apparently taken from police earlier.

UPDATE: 4/28/14 1:35 PM ET

US sanctions are a return to Cold War practices, says Russia's deputy foreign minister

Reuters — A senior Russian diplomat sharply criticized a new round of US sanctions on Monday, saying the measures were illegitimate and uncivilized and that restrictions on high-tech exports from the United States marked a return to Cold War practices.

"We decisively condemn the series of measures that has been announced in an attempt to put sanctions pressure on Moscow," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in comments posted on the ministry's website.

"Unilateral extraterritorial sanctions are by nature illegitimate. They do not just fail to correspond to the norms of civilized interaction between states ... they contradict the demands of international law," Ryabkov said.

He said the US decision to impose sanctions was based on an "absolutely distorted" view of events occurring in Ukraine and "will not improve the chances for a constructive solution to the problems that have arisen."

In addition to slapping visa bans and asset freezes on seven Russian officials and imposing sanctions on 17 companies with links to President Vladimir Putin, the United states said will deny export license applications for any high-technology items that could contribute to Russian military capabilities.

"Washington is in effect reviving ... an old method of restricting normal cooperation, from Cold War times, essentially chasing itself into a dark, dusty closet of a bygone era," said Ryabkov.

UPDATE: 4/28/14 12:30 PM ET

More evidence of violence in Donetsk

Warning: Some of the images below are graphic.

UPDATE: 4/28/14 12:25 PM ET

Stun grenades and injuries in Donetsk

Reuters — Several people were wounded when what appeared to be stun grenades exploded during a rally in support of Ukrainian unity in the eastern, separatist-held city of Donetsk on Monday, a Reuters reporter said.

At least five people suffered head injuries when pro-Russian separatists tried to disrupt the rally of some 2,000 people opposed to the armed uprising racking in eastern Ukraine. The wounds did not appear to be life-threatening.

UPDATE: 4/28/14 12:20 PM ET

More on the pro-Ukrainian rally in Donetsk

UPDATE: 4/28/14 12:10 PM ET

Chaos breaks out at pro-Ukrainian rally in Donetsk

Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk is in Donetsk, where a pro-Ukrainian rally is underway. Busloads of police and medics were present in anticipation of trouble — and trouble there is.

UPDATE: 4/28/14 12:00 PM ET

The latest trend in eastern Ukraine: Children posing for pictures with armed separatists?

In Crimea last month, we saw locals take pictures with mysterious, armed soldiers who had no identifying marks on their uniforms (as chronicled by BuzzFeed):

Now, eastern Ukraine seems to be getting in on the trend with local children — toddlers, really — cavorting near pro-Russian armed separatists in Konstantinovka:

UPDATE: 4/28/14 11:35 AM ET

It was 'irresponsible' to send OSCE monitors to Ukraine, says Russian envoy

Reuters — A senior Russian diplomat said on Monday it had been "extremely irresponsible" to send military monitors from the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to tense eastern Ukraine, where they were detained last week.

Andrey Kelin, Moscow's ambassador to the Vienna-based OSCE, said however that it would be a good step towards easing the conflict to release the seven European monitors, who are being held by pro-Russian rebels.

"We have made statements for the benefit of these people and we hope that negotiations will continue and I hope also that it will be a success," he told reporters after an extraordinary meeting of the 57-nation European security body.

Germany urged Moscow earlier on Monday to use its influence on pro-Russian separatists to secure the release of the observers, who are being held in the city of Slovyansk.

UPDATE: 4/28/14 11:20 AM ET

EU reaches preliminary agreement on additional sanctions

Reuters — European Union governments reached a preliminary agreement on Monday to impose asset freezes and visa bans on 15 more people as part of expanded sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine, diplomats said.

An EU procedure to approve the sanctions does not end until 5 p.m. (11 a.m. ET) but that is seen as a formality, EU diplomats said. The names of those to be added to the list will not be made public until they are published in the EU's Official Journal on Tuesday.

The EU decision coincided with a White House announcement that the United States was imposing sanctions against seven Russians, including Igor Sechin, head of Russia's major oil company Rosneft, and 17 companies linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

European leaders were also considering broader sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy after pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine held monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a US official said.

"We have noticed a distinct uptick in the last three days from major European capitals in continuing to look very hard at sectoral (sanctions) in response to the egregious treatment of the ... monitors in Slovyansk," a US official told reporters.

UPDATE: 4/28/14 10:50 AM ET

An assassination attempt on the mayor of Kharkiv?

The mayor of Kharkiv, Gennady Kernes, was shot by gunmen on Monday and is seriously wounded.

The Kharkiv city council said the mayor was clinging to life, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A statement on the Kharkiv city council website said:

"The Kharkiv mayor received a gunshot wound in the back. Now he is in the hospital emergency room on the operating table. Doctors are fighting for his life."

Yuriy Sydorenko, a spokesman for the city council, said the incident happened "in Belgorodskiy highway between 11:30 a.m. and noon local time," according to the Kyiv Post. "He was riding a bicycle, and apparently there has been only one shot."

A surgeon who operated on Kernes said the mayor had suffered from a "serious thoracoabdominal injury."

Kernes was a supporter of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, but had taken a more conciliatory approach to the new authorities in Kyiv.

The Journal noted, "When Mr. Yanukovych fled at the end of February, Mr. Kernes briefly left the country before returning and adopting a softer tone toward new authorities."

From the mayor's Instagram account:

UPDATE: 4/28/14 10:40 AM ET

These are the newly sanctioned Putin allies

Europe Editor Gregory Feifer gives details on the newly sanctioned individuals:

Sergei Chemezov is the head of Russian Technologies, a huge conglomerate that also controls the state arms exporter Rosoboronexport. He's a close Putin ally.

Dmitry Kozak is Russia's deputy prime minister. He's not a crony, but he's been a loyal bureaucrat who's also seen as very able. He was drafted to oversee the Winter Olympics in Sochi. He was also put in charge of the Caucasus. He's the Kremlin's "fixer" of sorts.

Aleksei Pushkov is the head of the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, and a nationalist. He had a long career as a journalist.

Igor Sechin is the head of the state oil company Rosneft. He's widely seen as the second most powerful man in Russia, after Putin. He's believed to be the head of siloviki (strongmen) — a Kremlin clan of leaders from the state's security structures.

Vyacheslav Volodin is Putin's first deputy chief of staff. He was brought in right around when Putin was returning for a third term. He's widely believed to have overseen the crackdown on media, political opposition and NGOs.

Oleg Belavencev

Evgeniy Murov

UPDATE: 4/28/14 10:00 AM ET

US announces new sanctions

Reuters — US President Barack Obama announced new sanctions against some Russians on Monday to stop President Vladimir Putin from fomenting the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, but said he was holding broader measures against Russia's economy "in reserve."

The new US sanctions, to be outlined in detail later on Monday, will add more people and firms to a list announced last month of figures whose assets are frozen and who are denied visas to travel to the United States.

The European Union is also expected to add targets to its Russia sanctions list on Monday. Ambassadors from the 28 EU states met in Brussels and an EU diplomat said they were expected to add around 15 new names.

Washington will also target some high tech exports, Obama said. But the measures do not yet include the wider sanctions, such as curbs on the Russian financial and energy sectors, that would do the most serious damage to Russia's economy.

"We are keeping in reserve additional steps that we could take should the situation escalate further," Obama said, acknowledging that he did not know if the measures he has ordered so far will work.

US officials have said the new list would include Putin's "cronies" in the hope of changing his behavior.

"The goal is not to go after Mr. Putin personally. The goal is to change his calculus with respect to how the current actions that he's engaging in Ukraine could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul," Obama said in Manila during a trip to Asia.

"To encourage him to actually walk the walk and not just talk the talk when it comes to diplomatically resolving the crisis in Ukraine."



The Treasury Department has the full list of sanctioned individuals and companies.

UPDATE: 4/28/14 9:40 AM ET

Taking a break from seizing buildings to pose for photographs

Posing outside a regional administration building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kostyantynivka, on April 28, 2014.

Posing outside a regional administration building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kostyantynivka, on April 28, 2014.

In Donetsk:

Pro-Russian militiants attack a branch of Ukrainian bank Privatbank in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on April 28, 2014. Some 300 masked pro-Russian militants wielding baseball bats attacked a branch of the bank owned by an oligarch regional governor who has voiced criticism of Moscow.

UPDATE: 4/28/14 7:40 AM ET

Separatists seize another building

Reuters — Pro-Russian separatists have seized the local police headquarters in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kostyantynivka, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said on Monday.

"At 6:00 a.m., about 30 separatists came to the local police headquarters and occupied the ground floor. Negotiations are underway with the local police chief. We do not know what their demands are," said Laryssa Volkova, interior ministry spokeswoman.

UPDATE: 4/28/14 7:30 AM ET

More sanctions expected after separatists parade captured observers

Reuters — The United States and the European Union were Monday readying fresh sanctions against Russia amid rising tensions over the kidnapping of international observers by pro-Russian militants in Ukraine.

The EU said top officials from its 28 member states would meet Monday seeking to adopt an additional list of sanctions, likely to include asset freezes and travel bans.

European powers are working in tandem with the United States and the rest of the G7 group of leading economies which agreed over the weekend to impose new sanctions on Russia after Kyiv accused Moscow of seeking to trigger a "third world war."

The G7 grouping includes EU heavyweights Britain, France, Germany and Italy as well as Canada and Japan.

A senior US official said the new sanctions will target Russia's defense industry as well as individuals and companies close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

US President Barack Obama, on an Asian tour, stressed the need for a unified response to isolate Russia.

It is vital to avoid "falling into the trap of interpreting this as the US is trying to pull Ukraine out of Russia's orbit, circa 1950. Because that's not what this is about," he said.

"We're going to be in a stronger position to deter Mr Putin when he sees that the world is unified and the United States and Europe are unified, rather than this is just a US-Russian conflict," Obama added.

The US and EU have already targeted Putin's inner circle with visa and asset freezes and imposed sanctions on a key Russian bank.

However, former Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky said they would have "no short-term effect" on the Russian economy.

In Ukraine, pro-Russian militants presented a captured team of international observers as "prisoners of war" on Sunday, further raising the stakes in the crisis.

The self-styled mayor of rebel-held Slovyansk, which has become the epicenter of the crisis, led eight European members of an OSCE military inspection mission before scores of local and foreign journalists in the town hall.

With four armed rebels watching over him, a spokesman for the group, German officer Axel Schneider, said the team was in good health and stressed they were "OSCE officers with diplomatic status."

"I cannot go home of my own free will," he told reporters.

One of the OSCE men, a Swede, was later released as he suffers from diabetes, a rebel spokeswoman told AFP.

OSCE chairman and Swiss President Didier Burkhalter condemned the kidnappings, saying his organization was working "at all levels" to secure their release.

The local rebel leader, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, earlier told reporters: "In our town, where a war situation is going on, any military personnel who don't have our permission are considered prisoners of war."

Pro-Russia militias this month occupied a string of towns and cities in eastern Ukraine, sparking a military response from the Ukrainian army, which is laying siege to Slovyansk.

The detention of the OSCE men sparked global outrage amid the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.

The international community is on edge, with one Western diplomat pointing to a possible imminent invasion by Russia, which has some 40,000 troops massed on the border with Ukraine.

France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Sunday warned of "incalculable consequences" if the situation in Ukraine deteriorates further.

Germany's foreign minister also weighed in, saying Russia has a "duty to influence the separatists," and describing the public exhibition of the prisoners as "repugnant."

"This is a violation of all negotiating rules and norms that prevail in tense situations like this one," he added.

Russia has said it will take steps to secure the European inspectors' freedom but has blamed Kyiv for their capture, stressing it was up to the host country to ensure their security.

The rebels have accused the team — which also included five Ukrainians, one of whom was later released — of being "NATO spies" and said they would only be freed as part of a prisoner swap.

Ponomaryov claimed they were "not our hostages — they are our guests" and said he had "no direct contact with Moscow".

Ponomaryov added that the rebels were also holding three Ukrainian military officers captured overnight on what he said was a spying mission.

Russian television showed the Ukrainian men blindfolded, cuffed and in their underwear.

UPDATE: 4/27/14 5:15 PM ET

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UPDATE: 4/27/14 3:30 PM ET

An odd alliance of separatists? Angry babushkas and disaffected youth

True, rebel flags declaring "The People's Republic of Donetsk" have been going up around the region lately. But only about 27 percent of the people in Donetsk support becoming a part of Russia, while 66 percent oppose the presence of Russian troops here. That's according to recent survey data from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), a respected pollster based in the country’s capital.

The same poll found that 72 percent of the population in the Donetsk region is against the armed seizure of administrative buildings.

So who are the separatists? Most are pensioners — angry babushkas are a mainstay at protest barricades — middle-aged blue-collar men, or disaffected youth, who huddle around ramshackle tents smoking cigarettes as cheesy, patriotic music blares.

Most of the rest of the people in Donetsk are trying to go about their lives as normally as possible:

Read more from senior correspondent Dan Peleschuk here.

 UPDATE: 4/27/14 1:30 PM ET

One OSCE monitor freed

The BBC and Reuters report rebels in eastern Ukraine have released one of eight European monitors held in Slovyansk since Friday.

The Swedish monitor is said to have been released because of a preexisting medical condition, reportedly diabetes.

Diplomats at the highest levels, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, have been negotiating for the release of all of the members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe detained in Slovyansk.

OSCE head Lamberto Zannier was due to fly to Ukraine today to work on a deal for their release.

UPDATE: 4/27/14 1:19 PM ET

When police become pacifists, you get Russian TV

GlobalPost's Dan Peleschuk sends this report from Donetsk (scroll down two posts for the photographs):

Pro-Russian rebels appeared in control on Sunday evening of the regional state television headquarters in Donetsk, where they guarded the entrance in military fatigues and masks shortly after seizing the building with ease.

They vowed to take the channel off the air and replace it with a major Russian state-owned broadcaster, which many here say is a much-needed counterweight to what they allege is Ukrainian propaganda that paints them as criminals.

The seizure could prove a key strategic asset for the rebels, who planted their flag atop the headquarters after it was seized.

Oleg Dzholos, the station's director, said those who stormed the building had a "pretty tough" conversation with him over shutting the channel down.

"It was not a demand, but an ultimatum," he said.

Protesters were only lightly armed, mostly with clubs and shields.

About a dozen police officers on the scene milled about or sat in their cars, with one of the officers saying there was "no point" in attempting to prevent the seizure because it would've attract a larger and angrier crowd.

The widespread passivity of local police in eastern Ukraine has been a particularly acute problem since the uprisings here began, with many being either sympathetic to the protesters or afraid to take action.

Meanwhile, the handful of protesters who remained at the building after its seizure claimed the move was justified because most Ukrainian channels were spreading disinformation about the anti-government movement here.

"What happened here is something that should've happened a long time ago," said 52-year-old Marina Panchenko. "Ukrainian television channels do not objectively report on the situation in southeastern Ukraine."

The channel, according to Dzholos, was still operating normally. On Sunday evening, it was broadcasting its regularly-scheduled film – a Soviet-era period piece.

Follow Dan on Twitter for more first-hand accounts.

UPDATE: 4/27/14 1:09 PM ET

Donetsk ... where's that again?

It can be difficult to keep track of regional developments related to the Ukraine crisis. Here's a visual reminder of which province, or "oblast," is where — with some color-coding that describes political allegiances in 2007.

Wikimedia Commons. Self-made based off map by Muumi with data from Central Election Commission of Ukraine.

UPDATE: 4/27/14 11:55 AM ET

Reports that Kharkiv protesters are getting violent

Local media are reporting clashes in Kharkiv between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters:

Local reporters estimated thousands in attendance at pro-Ukraine demonstrations in Kharkiv, versus hundreds at separatist protests:

UPDATE: 4/27/14 11:35 AM ET

Protesters occupy Donetsk state TV station

GlobalPost senior correspondent Dan Peleschuk is on the scene — which, it might surprise you, appears quite calm.

UPDATE: 4/27/14 11:05 AM ET

OSCE drama continues

AFP reports that the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Lamberto Zannier is due to fly to Ukraine, where military inspectors associated with the pan-European monitoring body are being held by rebels in the restive east.

That's according to Ukraine's acting foreign minister Andrii Deshchytsia, who was flying back to Kyiv Sunday after visiting Rome for the Vatican's naming of two new saints.

The detained observers appeared at a press conference Sunday:

UPDATE: 4/27/14 9:25 AM ET

The sanctions are coming

Agence France-Presse — US President Barack Obama warned Sunday that the West would take further measures against Moscow's "provocation" in Ukraine, where tensions are running high over the kidnapping of an international team of observers.

Obama called for global unity over the crisis as Europe and the US prepare fresh sanctions against Moscow that are expected to come into force as early as Monday.

AFP reporters in the flashpoint city of Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine said rebels had reinforced the SBU security service building where OSCE monitors are being held and that tensions were growing at checkpoints.

Militants outside the SBU building ordered reporters to leave the vicinity.

Pro-Russia militias have occupied a string of towns and cities in eastern Ukraine, sparking a military response from the Ukrainian army, which is laying siege to Slavyansk, the epicentre of the unrest.

As nerves around the world jangled over the standoff, a Western diplomat has said a Russian invasion of Ukraine in coming days could not be ruled out, with some 40,000 troops poised on the border.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk cut short a trip to the Vatican on Saturday to rush home to deal with the crisis, with has plunged East-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War.

He has accused Russian warplanes of multiple incursions into Ukrainian airspace and warned that Moscow is trying to provoke Kiev into starting "a third world war."

Read the rest of this report from AFP.

UPDATE: 4/26/14 01:29 PM ET

Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko says Ukraine 'must be a member of NATO,' Associated Press reports


Read AP's interview with Tymoshenko here.

UPDATE: 4/26/14 01:20 PM ET

Pope offers to help Ukraine

Agence France-Presse — Pope Francis told Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Saturday that he would "do everything possible" for the country, amid fears that Russia could be about to invade.

Yatsenyuk said he asked Francis "to pray for Ukraine and for stability in Europe" and told him he was grateful for the support.

The Vatican said in a statement that Francis and Yatsenyuk had discussed the "specific role" that religious organizations could play "in fostering mutual respect and harmony."

UPDATE: 2/26/14 01:01 PM ET

Lavrov tells Kerry that US should press Kyiv to rein in its army

Reuters — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told US Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday that Ukraine must stop its military operation in southeastern regions of the country as part of efforts to defuse the crisis, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

In a telephone conversation with Kerry, Lavrov also urged the United States to use its influence to secure the release of what the Russian ministry called leaders of the "protest movement" in southeastern Ukraine — a reference to pro-Russian separatists.

The ministry said Kerry and Lavrov discussed efforts to resolve the situation involving detained OSCE military observers.

It said "public structures" controlling parts of southeastern Ukraine had not been properly informed of the observers' plans to travel there.

UPDATE: 4/26/14 09:34 AM ET

G7 agrees on new sanctions on Russia

Reuters — Leaders of the Group of Seven major economies agreed to impose more sanctions on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, where armed pro-Moscow separatists have detained a group of international observers they accuse of being NATO spies.

Here are excerpts from G7's statement: 

We welcomed the positive steps taken by Ukraine to meet its commitments under the Geneva accord of April 17 by Ukraine, Russia, the European Union, and the United States.

These actions include working towards constitutional reform and decentralization, proposing an amnesty law for those who will peacefully leave the buildings they have seized in eastern Ukraine, and supporting the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

We also note that the Government of Ukraine has acted with restraint in dealing with the armed bands illegally occupying government buildings and forming illegal checkpoints.

In contrast, Russia has taken no concrete actions in support of the Geneva accord. It has not publicly supported the accord, nor condemned the acts of pro-separatists seeking to destabilize Ukraine, nor called on armed militants to leave peacefully the government buildings they've occupied and put down their arms.

Instead, it has continued to escalate tensions by increasingly concerning rhetoric and ongoing threatening military maneuvers on Ukraine's border.

We have now agreed that we will move swiftly to impose additional sanctions on Russia. Given the urgency of securing the opportunity for a successful and peaceful democratic vote next month in Ukraine's presidential elections, we have committed to act urgently to intensify targeted sanctions and measures to increase the costs of Russia's actions.

Russia's actions in Ukraine and the response from the international community already have imposed significant costs on its economy.

While we continue to prepare to move to broader, coordinated sanctions, including sectoral measures should circumstances warrant, as we committed to in The Hague on March 24, we underscore that the door remains open to a diplomatic resolution of this crisis, on the basis of the Geneva accord.

We urge Russia to join us in committing to that path.

The pro-Western Kyiv government said a Russian special forces operative was behind what it called a kidnapping in the eastern city of Slavyansk that is under the separatists' control, and said the detainees were being used as a "human shield."

Ukraine's state security service said the observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were being held "in inhuman conditions in the basement of the terrorists' headquarters," and that one needed medical help.

UPDATE: 4/26/14 08:38 AM ET

Russia says its trying to resolve detention of OSCE observers in Ukraine

Reuters — Russia said on Saturday that it was doing what it could to resolve the situation involving the detention of military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe by pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said Russia was "taking measures to resolve the situation within the framework of existing possibilities." It gave no details about what it was doing.

Meanwhile, the Kyiv Post reported that Igor Strelkov, the alleged commander of the separatist militia in Slovyansk, spoke at a press conference in Slovyansk, according to reports in Russian media outlet Life News.

Strelkov, who the SBU has depicted with only a composite drawing, accused the eight Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe military inspectors, whom pro-Russian militants abducted on April 25, of being "NATO spies." 

He added they would only be exchanged for pro-Russian "activists" who Ukrainian authorities have in custody.

UPDATE: 4/26/14 08:22 AM ET

Ukrainian prime minister says Russian jets violated airspace

Reuters — Russian military aircraft repeatedly crossed over into Ukraine's airspace overnight, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said on a visit to the Italian capital.

"Russian military aircraft today at night crossed and violated Ukrainian airspace seven times.

The only reason is to provoke Ukraine ... and to accuse Ukraine of waging war against Russia," Yatseniuk, who was speaking English, told reporters in Rome.

UPDATE: 4/25/14 5:15 PM ET

Signing off

This live blog is now closed. Please check here for further developments or follow our Twitter list for updates.

UPDATE: 4/25/14 5:05 PM ET

Is the US stumbling into war with Russia?

In his strongest remarks so far, acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia this morning of wanting to start World War III.

"Attempts at military conflict in Ukraine will lead to a military conflict in Europe," he said.

Meanwhile, both Obama and Putin have threatened consequences if the other side doesn't back down.

Jean MacKenzie looked into how likely it is that the United States could stumble into a war with Russia (especially given reports that the two leaders are no longer speaking).

She talked to Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University, and a managing director at Kissinger Associates.

“It is our problem as a policymaking establishment that we cannot understand how the other side looks at the world,” Graham said. “We think, ‘how can Russia be opposed to prosperous, democratic societies on its borders?’ We do not understand why they consider such moves to be against them.”

Read the full piece here.

UPDATE: 4/25/14 4:25 PM ET

Putin and Obama aren't talking right now

The Daily Beast reported that Putin has stopped all high-level talks with the White House as the latter prepares to impose further sanctions on Russia.

"Since the invasion of Crimea, President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama have had regular phone calls in an often half-hearted attempt to deescalate the ongoing crisis inside Ukraine. But as the U.S. and EU prepare to unveil new sanctions against Russia, Putin has decided the interactions should stop. The Kremlin has ended high-level contact with the Obama administration, according to diplomatic officials and sources close to the Russian leadership. The move signals an end to the diplomacy, for now."

Read the full story here.

UPDATE: 4/25/14 4:15 PM ET

OSCE's military monitoring mission being held

Reuters — Armed pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk were holding a group of international observers on Friday, saying they had found a Ukrainian spy traveling with them.

"They are with us in Slovyansk," the de facto mayor of the city, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, told Reuters in front of the seized security service building where, according to the Ukrainian government, the observers were being held.

"What the situation was I do not know," he said. "It was reported to me that among them (the observers) was an employee of Kiev's secret military staff."

"People who come here as observers bringing with them a real spy: it's not appropriate." Later, a man in a mask and camouflage fatigues said there would be no more comments on Friday evening.

The detention of the observers, who are working for the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will heighten Western concerns about lawlessness and arbitrary rule in separatist-held parts of eastern Ukraine.

It may also increase Western leaders' pressure on Moscow, which they accuses of backing the militias. The Kremlin denies interfering in eastern Ukraine.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on his Twitter account: "Extremely concerned with OSCE inspectors being abducted in a Eastern Ukraine. Including one Swede. They must be released immediately."

Slovyansk is the biggest flashpoint in an armed uprising in eastern Ukraine that has widened into the worst stand-off between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.

UPDATE: 2/25/14 02:22 PM ET

OSCE reports its international observers are 'safe and accounted for'

UPDATE: 4/25/14 12:25 PM ET

A blockade to avoid civilian casualties

The Ukrainian game plan with regard to Slovyansk was to blockade the city that's in separatist control. Acting President Oleksander Turchynov's chief-of-staff Serhiy Pashynsky said this morning, "The goal is to blockade the terrorists and prevent any civilian casualties."

The deputy chief of Ukraine's Security Service, Vasily Krutov, said the plan was to prevent reinforcements from joining the separatists rather than attacking them head-on.

"We won't risk victims from storming the city. We understand that could cause a lot of casualties," Krutov said, according to The Wall Street Journal.

What's left unsaid is that the Ukrainian military doesn't want to give Russian forces a pretext to cross Ukraine's border.

UPDATE: 4/25/14 12:02 PM ET

OSCE mission seized by separatists, says Ukraine's ministry

Reuters — Armed separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk seized a bus carrying international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Friday, Ukraine's interior ministry said.

The group, which included 7 OSCE representatives and five members of the Ukrainian armed forces, was being held in the building of the state security agency (SBU) in the city which has been occupied by pro-Russian separatists.

"Negotiations are going on for their release," a ministry statement said.

UPDATE: 4/25/14 11:50 AM ET

Germany hasn't been able to contact the OSCE mission

Reuters — Germany's defense ministry said on Friday it was unable to contact a German-led group of international military observers on a mission in the rebel-held city of Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine.

The group, on a mission overseen by the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), is made up of three German soldiers, a German translator, and military observers from Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden and Denmark, a ministry spokesman said.

"At the moment we cannot contact them. The reason why is unclear," he said, adding it could be down to poor telephone coverage or reception.

UPDATE: 4/25/14 11:30 AM ET

The ICC is looking into allegations of crimes against humanity in Ukraine

Reuters — The International Criminal Court has begun a preliminary investigation into allegations of crimes against humanity in Ukraine, the court said in a statement on Friday.

Ukraine is not a member of the world's permanent war crimes court, but it has granted the ICC jurisdiction over crimes on its territory from November 21, 2013, to February 22, 2014, the period leading up to the fall of former president Viktor Yanukovych.

The new government of Ukraine referred the cases to the ICC, alleging that Yanukovych's troops killed over 100 protesters in Kyiv and other cities. The referral runs up to the day before Russia annexed Crimea, so the investigation will not cover any crimes that might have been committed by Russian-backed troops during that period.

Court prosecutors will use the preliminary investigation to decide if any alleged crimes took place that are serious enough to warrant a full-blown investigation.

UPDATE: 4/25/14 10:55 AM ET

The US and EU wave the threat of more sanctions above Russia's head

The tea leaves — okay, actual official statements — say Russia may be headed for more sanctions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking alongside Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Berlin, said she had informed Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country hadn't done enough to implement the agreement reached in Geneva earlier this month.

"I spoke to the Russian president this morning and made clear again that on the one hand Ukraine has taken a whole series of steps to implement the Geneva accord but on the other side I see no Russian backing for the accord which would of course have an effect on the separatists in Ukraine," she said, according to Reuters.

Merkel said Russia had the power to persuade separatists in eastern Ukraine to peaceful negotiations. However, it hasn't taken such action yet.

"We will therefore have to react," Merkel said, according to Reuters. "This will be a joint European action and an action by the G7...because of the lack of progress we will have to contemplate further sanctions… within the second stage of sanctions."

Earlier in the day, Obama, who was speaking from South Korea, said he would talk with European leaders about the possibility of imposing more sanctions if Russia did not back down.

"What's also important is laying the groundwork so that if and when we see even greater escalation, perhaps even military incursion by Russia into Ukraine, we're prepared for the sort of sectoral sanctions that would have even larger consequences," Obama said, according to Reuters.

Sectoral sanctions, as Reuters explains, refer to sanctions targeting certain regions of the Russian economy such as energy or defense.

UPDATE: 4/25/14 10:20 AM ET

Pro-Russians shoot down helicopter

Pro-Russian militants reportedly shot down a Ukrainian helicopter in Kramatorsk's airfield, injuring the pilot, according to the Kyiv Post.

According to the state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti, pro-Russian militants claimed responsibility for the attack.

More from the Kyiv Post:

Witnesses reported hearing explosions from the base around 11:30 a.m. Dmitry Tymchuk, a defense expert and director of the Center of Military and Political Research in Kyiv, told reporters that the Mi-8 helicopter had exploded upon take-off and the pilot managed to escape with minor injuries.

UPDATE: 4/25/14 9:55 AM ET

Ukrainian special forces begin blockade of Slovyansk: Presidential aide

Reuters — Ukrainian special forces launched a second phase of their operation in the east of the country on Friday by mounting a full blockade of the rebel-held city of Slovyansk, an official on the presidential staff said.

"Twenty minutes ago ... Ukrainian special forces units began the second stage, which consists of our taking the decision to blockade the city of Slovyansk completely and give no opportunity to bring in reinforcements," Serhiy Pashynsky was quoted as telling reporters by a presidential spokesman.

Pashynsky is chief-of-staff to acting president Oleksander Turchynov. Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted him adding: "The operation will continue. Its goal is to blockade the terrorists in Slovyansk and not allow casualties among civilians."

"We will consider any crossing of the Ukrainian border by Russian troops into the territory of Donetsk or any other region as a military invasion and we will destroy the attackers," Pashynsky was quoted as saying by Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

"We do not accept false declarations about humanitarian action," he said.

UPDATE: 4/25/14 7:30 AM ET

Obama and EU leaders will talk possible sanctions

Reuters — President Barack Obama said on Friday he will talk to European leaders later on Friday about Ukraine and may be ready to impose sectoral sanctions if Russia escalates actions.

Obama, on a visit to the South Korean capital, wants to nudge the EU toward fresh sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, sources familiar with the matter said earlier.

US officials have grown increasingly impatient with what they describe as Russia's failure to live up to its commitments in an April 17 agreement reached in Geneva to try to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine.

The United States is also frustrated at the reluctance of some European nations, notably Germany and Italy, to impose a new round of economic sanctions on Russia but it would much prefer to act in concert with the EU rather than on its own.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel told Putin in a call on Friday she is gravely concerned about eastern Ukraine and expects Russia to honor the agreement struck in Geneva and urge pro-Russia militia to disarm, her spokesman said.

UPDATE: 4/25/14 6:45 AM ET

In strongest language yet, Ukraine's PM accuses Russia of wanting to start WWIII

Reuters — Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia on Friday of wanting to start World War Three by occupying Ukraine "militarily and politically."

"The world has not yet forgotten World War Two, but Russia already wants to start World War Three," Yatsenyuk told the interim cabinet in remarks broadcast live. "Attempts at military conflict in Ukraine will lead to a military conflict in Europe."

In some of the strongest language he has yet used in a war of words between the former Soviet neighbors, as both sides have deployed troops close to their frontier, Yatsenyuk accused Moscow of acting like a "gangster" supporting "terrorists."

"It is clear that Russia's goal is to wreck the election in Ukraine, remove the pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian government and occupy Ukraine politically as well as military," added the premier.

Yatsenyuk took office in February after pro-European protests prompted the Kremlin-backed president to flee to Russia.

Ukraine plans to hold an election to replace Viktor Yanukovych on May 25, but the Russian-speaking east of the country has been disrupted by pro-Moscow militants who have taken over the city of Slovyansk and public buildings elsewhere, demanding to follow Crimea into being annexed by Russia.

Russia denies involvement but has denounced the Ukrainian government, which it says is illegitimate and backed by "fascist" Ukrainian nationalists, and has threatened to move in to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

Pro-Russian separatist militants fill sand bags to reinforce a checkpoint on April 24, 2014 in Slovyansk, Ukraine.

Yatsenyuk called on Moscow to fulfill obligations to persuade activists in eastern Ukraine to lay down arms under a four-way agreement signed last week in Geneva by the two governments, as well as Ukraine's US and EU allies.

"Russia's support for terrorists and bandits who torture peaceful citizens is an international crime. It is a crime against humanity," added the prime minister. Ukraine's state security service has accused Russian military intelligence officers in Ukraine, and the separatist leader in Slovyansk, of involvement in the torture and murder of a local councilor from Yatsenyuk's Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party.

The prime minister said Kyiv was still waiting for a response to an official request for details of Russian military exercises on the border. It made the request through mechanisms of Europe's OSCE security body and set a deadline of Saturday.

Yatsenyuk said: "If the United States, the European Union and the entire international community continues to be united and act together to compel Russia to fulfill its obligations, then we will maintain the peace, stability and international security system that Russia wants to destroy."

UPDATE: 4/25/14 6:30 AM ET

Interior minister dismisses reports that Ukraine suspended its operation

Reuters — Ukraine is pressing on with its operation against pro-Russian rebels in the east and has ample military resources to keep up the offensive round the clock, the interior minister said on Friday.

Arsen Avakov dismissed talk that Kyiv suspended its "anti-terrorist operation" (ATO) in the face of threats from Moscow after Ukrainian troops closed in on the rebel stronghold.

"There has been no suspension of the ATO in connection to the threat of invasion by Russia's armed forces," he wrote on his Facebook page. "The ATO goes on. The terrorists should be on their guard around the clock. Civilians have nothing to fear."

Denying suggestions that Kyiv's forces are stretched, he also stressed that care was being taken to avoid non-combatant casualties, after Moscow warned it may act to protect civilians.

"Contrary to the rumors, only insignificant forces from the ATC were deployed, without the use of tanks or other heavy armor," Avakov wrote on his Facebook page, referring to an Anti-Terrorism Centre involving the army and other agencies.

"The ATC has sufficient forces at its disposal to rotate them and operate round the clock if necessary."

Russian troops conducting exercises close to the Ukrainian frontier this week came within one kilometer of the border but did not cross, Ukraine's defense minister was quoted as saying on Friday by Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

Saying that a column of Russian forces had approached within 1 km (1,100 yards) of the border and that aircraft had also taken part in the maneuvers, Mykhailo Koval added: "Ukraine's armed forces are ready to repel any aggression."

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday denounced Kyiv's security operation in eastern Ukraine as a "bloody crime" and said the interim government would face justice for staging a war against its own citizens.

"They (Kyiv) are waging a war on their own people. This is a bloody crime and those who pushed the army to do that will pay, I am sure, and will face justice," he told a meeting with young diplomats in Moscow.

UPDATE: 4/24/14 3:30 PM ET

Signing off

This live blog is now closed. Please check here for further developments or follow our Twitter list for updates.

UPDATE: 4/24/14 3:25 PM ET

Ukrainian soldiers

UPDATE: 4/24/14 2:15 PM ET

Is it time to call Ukraine's crisis a civil war?

No, Stanford University professor James Fearon told Vox.

"I think it is important to start out by saying that what we're seeing here is not a civil war," Fearon said. "Rather, it's a land grab by President Putin that's boosting his popularity at home."

"First of all, there's a strong tendency to view civil wars as domestic politics problems but, in fact, many or maybe even most civil wars have a big dimension of international politics by other means. In other words, a big part of what we call "civil wars" is really being driven by an international conflict being played out through proxies. Disguised soldiers from another country [for example], as appears to be the case here."

Read the full piece at Vox.

GlobalPost's Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk took a look at Moscow's game plan with regard to Ukraine on Wednesday.

UPDATE: 4/24/14 1:55 PM ET

Paranoia and propaganda fill the information vacuum in eastern Ukraine

Kyiv Post's Christopher Miller noted on Twitter that though Ostrovsky has been released, several other journalists are still being detained.

Kyiv Post has a list of at least 16 people, including journalists, who have been kidnapped in eastern Ukrainian cities. Most of the captured journalists are Ukrainian, but among them were also Italian journalists, and a Belarusian journalist.

BuzzFeed's Max Seddon, who is in Slovyansk, wrote on Wednesday about the strange atmosphere of paranoia and misinformation that has been floating above eastern Ukraine.

He wrote:

In just 10 days, Slovyansk has transformed from a standard-issue depressed post-Soviet industrial town into a hotspot of anarchy and paranoia. Now, militants empowered by Russian support and Ukraine’s failure to disarm them are using their newfound power to spout conspiracy theories and target journalists. Russia’s state propaganda machine backs the separatists, whom it refers to merely as “supporters of federalization,” and eagerly reports their claims despite obvious logical inconsistencies or outright falsehoods.

The interim government in Kiev banned Russian TV from broadcasting in Ukraine in March but has made almost no effort to reach out to the Russian-speaking southeast of Ukraine. In the information vacuum, rumors and theories spread like wildfire.

The whole piece is well worth reading to understand the context in which events are unfolding in the eastern part of the country.

UPDATE: 4/24/14 1:25 PM ET

Ukraine asks Moscow for an explanation

Reuters — Ukraine has asked Moscow, under European OSCE security arrangements, to explain and give details of its military exercises near the border within 48 hours, the Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.

UPDATE: 4/24/14 12:55 PM ET

Vice confirms release

Vice News has confirmed Ostrovsky's release:

VICE News is delighted to confirm that our colleague and friend Simon Ostrovsky has been safely released and is in good health. We would like to thank everyone for their support during this difficult time. Out of respect for Simon and his family's privacy, we have no further statement at this time.

UPDATE: 4/24/14 12:45 PM ET

Vice reporter freed: Reports

The Guardian cited multiple reports saying Simon Ostrovsky, an American-Israeli journalist who was working for Vice in Ukraine, has been freed.

He was detained by pro-Russian forces in Slovyansk for "one-sided" reporting.

UPDATE: 4/24/14 12:20 PM ET

'The soldiers here are ready to remain faithful to their oaths'

Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk is in Slovyansk and sent this report:

Despite earlier reports of progress in Kyiv’s anti-terrorism campaign in Slovyansk, it remains unclear just how much control federal forces have restored over the region around the besieged city.

Along the outskirts, there are few signs of the violence that reportedly claimed at least two lives on Thursday.

Ukrainian military units have set up a new checkpoint about 10 kilometers southeast of the city, on one of the main roads that leads into Slovyansk. There, heavily armed troops inspect passing cars for arms and suspicious activity, and several armored personnel carriers (APC) are parked on the road. By Thursday evening, they had dug into the ridges on either side of the road with their automatic rifles.

Soldiers stationed there told GlobalPost on Thursday that they had no knowledge of the reported fighting in Slovyansk. Their commander said they'd been ordered to hold that position and, if necessary, defend against any possible attack by rebels.

"It depends on their actions," said the commander, who declined to give his name, speaking about the possibility of a confrontation. "It's not even clear who they are — are they separatists, not separatists? They're just unidentified armed men."

The commander also dismissed suggestions that his young troops would surrender if pressured by the rebels, as was the case during last week's unsuccessful "anti-terrorism" operation that resulted in either troop defections or capture by pro-Russian insurgents.

"The soldiers here are ready to remain faithful to their oaths," the commander said.

Meanwhile, just off the another road heading into Slovyansk from the nearest settlement, locals are wary of both Ukrainian military incursions and the armed, identified rebels who've occupied the city for two weeks.

"I'm fed up with a government that's so weak," said Galina Bogdanova, a cafe owner who was tending her garden on Thursday amid an afternoon glow.

Bogdanova said she merely wanted a strong, responsible government that'd be able to prevent the sort of chaos that's gripped Ukraine in recent months.

As for the anti-terrorism operation that's been unfolding on her doorstep?

"Just leave them alone and they'll eventually disperse," she said. "Sending in the army will only be another provocation."

UPDATE: 4/24/14 12:05 PM ET

About those gains this morning...

Earlier on Thursday, Ukraine's interior ministry said its forces had retaken Mariupol's city hall from separatists. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the mayor was back in his office.

Avakov also said Ukrainian forces had taken over checkpoints in Slovyansk and killed up to five separatists.

It seems the declarations came too soon, as Ukrainian troops withdrew from a checkpoint they had taken earlier in the day, allowing pro-Russian separatists to move back in.

Per Reuters: "A Reuters journalist said the troops, with armored vehicles, pulled back after about two hours at the checkpoint on a road near the village of Khrestyshche."

And the "liberated" city hall in Mariupol appeared to be surrounded by dozens of pro-Russian demonstrators.

More from Reuters:

Dozens of pro-Moscow demonstrators were surrounding it later in the day and controlling access to the building, which was still flying the separatist flag. Tires and barbed-wire barricades remained in place

Police were working inside the five-storey city hall, which appeared to be otherwise empty.

In a statement, the Mariupol police said officers were still conducting investigations in the building after breaking up a fight overnight when separatists occupying the city hall were attacked inside by about 30 unidentified men armed with clubs.

Pro-Russian activists blamed Ukrainian nationalists for the attack but said the separatist movement was now back in charge.

One of those injured, a 20-year-old separatist who gave his name as Vova, said of the incident which left him with a bandage round his skull: "I woke up and people were running through the hall with masks. At first I thought it was our boys. But when I tried to get up they beat me with a metal pipe."

Irina Voropoyeva, 56, a separatist representing the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk, said: A group of people burst into the building screaming 'Ukraine! Ukraine!'

"They beat our people up," she said. But now the building was back under their control: "Everything is as it was," she said. "We, the People's Republic of Donetsk, still control the building. There was an attempted provocation but now it's over."

UPDATE: 4/24/14 11:40 AM ET

Obama threatens more sanctions — Putin shrugs, sort of

US President Barack Obama, who is in Japan, said more sanctions against Russia were ready to go if it failed to follow through on the terms of the agreement reached in Geneva on April 17.

"So far at least we have seen them not abide by the spirit or the letter of the agreement in Geneva," Obama said during a joint news conference with Japan's prime minister, according to Reuters.

"We have prepared for the possibility of applying additional sanctions," he said.

Obama said Russia could avoid further sanctions by changing course, but said its actions so far had not left him hopeful of that outcome.

Russia's Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said last week that Russia could launch a dispute at the World Trade Organization, alleging that the United States' Ukraine-related sanctions against Russian individuals were illegal under the WTO's rules.

Reuters reports that Russia has sent the WTO a memo, laid out in a confidential document that circulated at the trade body on Wednesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to brush off the threat of further sanctions saying that while they were hurting the Russian economy, the damage was not critical.

"Overall they are causing (damage), because (credit) ratings are being reviewed, loans could become more expensive and so forth. But this is of no critical character," Putin said, according to Reuters.

"Overall they are harmful for everyone, they destroy the global economy (and) are dishonorable on the part of those who use those types of tools," he added.

UPDATE: 4/24/14 11:00 AM ET

Ukraine's president tells Russia to stop its 'blackmail'

Acting President Oleksander Turchynov called on Russia to pull its troops back from Ukraine's border, stop meddling in the country's internal affairs and end its "blackmail," according to Reuters.

A senior security official in Kyiv said Ukraine had paused its "anti-terrorist" operation in Slovyansk due to the "heightened risk" of Russian troops entering Ukraine, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The official said seven militants were killed in the operation, a higher figure than the interior ministry's statement of five.

Armed pro-Russian activists stand guard next to a barricade at a checkpoint outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk on April 24, 2014.

Meanwhile, Russia's defense ministry has ordered new military exercises near Ukraine's border, which it says are in response to NATO.

UPDATE: 4/24/14 10:45 AM ET

The scene near Slovyansk

UPDATE: 4/24/14 10:30 AM ET

Separatists 'violated' the constitution and are 'torturing' the country: Soldier

Reuters — At a checkpoint set up by the Ukrainian military, a soldier said they were there to instill law and order.

"Those separatists, they violated the constitution, they are torturing the country, they violated laws, they do not recognize the authority of police so the army had to move in and we will finish what we have started so help me God," he said.

Acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchynov called for the eastern offensive on Tuesday after the apparent torture and murder of a member of his own party from Slovyansk.

A local opposition activist called on the police to clear up the death of Volodymyr Rybak, a member of the Batkivshchyna party (also the party of Yulia Tymoshenko) who had remained loyal to Kyiv.

"He was bruised and punctured from head to toe ... it's clear they tortured him," said Aleksander Yaroshenko, a family friend who accompanied Rybak's widow when she identified his body at the morgue. "The police have lots of details, they have CCTV footage, they should know who did this," he told Reuters.

The government said the city hall in another eastern town, Mariupol, which had been seized by separatists, was now back under central control. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the mayor was back in his office.

Kyiv also reported a shootout overnight in another part of the east when a Ukrainian soldier was wounded, while pro-Russian separatists in Slovyansk were holding three journalists, including US citizen (and reporter for Vice) Simon Ostrovsky.

UPDATE: 4/24/14 10:14 AM ET

Putin warns of consequences with Russian troop build up near the border

Reuters — The Kremlin has built up forces on Ukraine's border — estimated by NATO officials at up to 40,000 troops — and maintains it has the right to protect Russian-speakers if they come under threat, a reason it gave for annexing the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last month.

In St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if the authorities in Kyiv had used the army in eastern Ukraine, this would be a very serious crime against its own people.

"It is just a punitive operation and it will of course incur consequences for the people making these decisions, including (an effect) on our interstate relations," Putin said in a televised meeting with regional media.

Russia's Defense Minister said it had begun military drills near the border with Ukraine, where it has deployed tens of thousands of troops, in response to "Ukraine's military machine" and NATO exercises in eastern Europe.

Moscow also flexed its economic muscles in its worst stand-off with the West since the Cold War, with the government suggesting foreign firms which pull out of the country may not be able to get back in, and a source at Gazprom saying the gas exporter had slapped an additional $11.4 billion bill on Kyiv.

Washington accuses Moscow of fomenting unrest in the east. Russia denies this and counters that Europe and the United States are supporting an illegitimate government in Kyiv.

Obama said the Russian leadership was not abiding by the spirit or the letter of the Geneva agreement so far.

"We have prepared for the possibility of applying additional sanctions," he told a news conference on a visit to Japan. "There's always the possibility that Russia, tomorrow, or the next day, reverses its course and takes a different approach."

UPDATE: 4/24/14 9:50 AM ET

Ukrainian forces kill up to five separatists as they resume the 'anti-terrorist' operation

Reuters — Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels on Thursday as they closed in on the separatists' military stronghold in the east.

Under an international accord signed in Geneva last week, illegal armed groups in Ukraine, including the rebels occupying about a dozen public buildings in the largely Russian-speaking east, are supposed to disarm and go home.

But they have shown no signs of doing so and on Thursday the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said its forces backed by the army had removed three checkpoints manned by armed groups in the separatist-controlled city of Slovyansk.

"During the armed clash up to five terrorists were eliminated," the ministry said in a statement, adding that one person had been wounded on the side of the government forces.

A rebel spokeswoman in Slovyansk said two fighters had died in a clash in the same area, northeast of the city center.

Reuters journalists saw a Ukrainian detachment with five armored personnel carriers take over a checkpoint on a road north of Slovyansk in the late morning after it was abandoned by separatists who set tires alight to cover their retreat.

However, two hours later the troops pulled back and it was unclear if Kyiv would risk storming Slovyansk, a city of 130,000 that has become the military stronghold of a movement seeking annexation by Moscow of the industrialized eastern Ukraine.

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