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Pro-Russian militia defy Kiev's latest deadline to end occupations

Ukraine's interim president had ordered pro-Russian protesters to hand back occupied buildings or face a crackdown, but so far neither has happened, leaving Ukraine in a tough spot.

Gleb Garanich / Reuters
Pro-Russian armed men stand guard outside the mayor's office in Slaviansk on April 14. Towns in eastern Ukraine on Monday braced for military action from government forces as a deadline passed for pro-Russian separatists to disarm and end their occupation of state buildings or face a major 'anti-terrorist' operation.

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Protesters seized another police station in eastern Ukraine Monday, as the government's latest deadline for pro-Russian militia to leave the government offices they have occupied for the past week passed without signs of withdrawal or crackdown.

In a televised Sunday address, acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchinov set a deadline of 9 a.m. for protesters to pull out. CNN reports that there was no sign of movement from occupied buildings in the regional capital, Donetsk, or the flashpoint city of Slovyansk. And at least 100 armed protesters stormed the police headquarters in Horlivka, a small city about 20 miles northeast of Donetsk, in a clash that apparently injured several people, Reuters reports.

Sergei Taruta, the Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk, said on Monday morning that an "anti-terrorist operation" was underway in the region and asked citizens "not to react to provocations," writes the Guardian.

Mr. Turchinov on Sunday had warned that protesters would face a "full-scale anti-terrorist operation" if they did not hand back the buildings they have occupied across Ukraine's Donbass region, its industrial heartland that is home to a large ethnic-Russian population. Many in Kiev and the West fear that Russia is stirring up Donbass to create a pretext for military intervention, as it did in Crimea.

Kiev will not allow "any repetition of the Crimean scenario," CNN quotes Turchinov as saying. "I have signed a decree that would allow those who did not shoot at our officers to lay down their arms and leave the occupied buildings by Monday morning without fear of being prosecuted."

US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen voiced similar warnings about the Crimea parallel, the Guardian notes.

"[The unrest] is professional, it's coordinated, there is nothing grassroots-seeming about it," Ms. Power said. "The forces are doing, in each of the six or seven cities they have been active in, exactly the same thing. Certainly it bears the telltale signs of Moscow's involvement," she told ABC's This Week.

NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the protests as "a concerted campaign of violence by pro-Russian separatists, aiming to destabilize Ukraine as a sovereign state."

Regardless of Russia's involvement, FRANCE24's chief foreign editor, Robert Parsons, comments that the pressure is on Ukraine to show that it is in control of its own territory. If “the central authorities in Kiev do manage to regain initiative and start forcing some of these paramilitary groups out of these city administration buildings where they’ve set themselves up… then that could begin to force Vladimir Putin’s hand. But at the moment he’s in a pretty comfortable position," he said.

But Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe writes that Ukraine is in "a dangerous no-win situation."

If the Ukrainian authorities had continued doing nothing, Russia would have accused them of failing to restore order and defend the Russian minority in eastern Ukraine (as if Russians hadn’t provoked the violence in the first place). In that case, Russia might have engineered an “invitation” to enter Ukraine and protect the ethnic Russians.

Yet now that the Ukrainian government is trying to defend the country’s integrity and end the violence, Moscow will accuse Kiev of threatening or even attacking the ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine. Again, the next step could be for Russia to be “invited” to send help.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is eager to exploit Kiev’s dilemma. “Ukraine was demonstrating its inability to take responsibility for the fate of the country,” he said. At the same time, Lavrov warned that any use of force against Russian speakers “would undermine the potential for cooperation,” including during the talks in Geneva, scheduled for April 17.

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