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Sanctions move likely as Ukraine violence grows

30 January 2015

REUTERS

Bless you: Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev sprinkles holy water during a ceremony to bless ambulances at the Mikhailovsky Zlatoverkhy Cathedral

Bless you: Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev sprinkles holy water during a ceremony to bless ambulances at the Mikhailovsky Zlatoverkhy Cathedral

FIGHTING in the eastern break-away regions of Ukraine has intensified over the past week, leading to the greatest loss of life since a ceasefire agreed last September in Minsk (News, 12 September).

Pro-Russian separatist leaders announced that they had begun an offensive in the strategically important coastal city of Mariupol at the weekend; but backtracked when it was revealed that 30 people were killed and about 100 people injured by rocket fire in the city.

Western sources report that Grad and Uragan rockets were fired at residential areas from rebel-held territory; and Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's general secretary, said that there had been a "substantial increase in the flow of equipment from Russia to the separatists".

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, told a press conference that Western media were using the deadly attack to "whip up anti-Russian hysteria".

Ukrainian officials said that the fighting that started at the beginning of this week had resulted in seven Ukrainian soldiers being killed and 24 more wounded. About 184 others are said to have been captured by the rebels. About 300 people are reported to have been killed as a result of the conflict in the past three weeks, bringing the deaths to more than 5000.

One of the shells hit a secondary school; another exploded near Holy Trinity Church in the village of Popasnaja, the regional governor said. The facade of the church, one of the oldest in the Donbas region, was damaged, and its iron gates were said to resemble a sieve.

"The shelling by pro-Kremlin terrorists of neighbourhoods in Mariupol...is more proof that the so-called People's Republic is a terrorist organisation," Patriarch Filaret of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Kiev Patriarchate said in a statement.

"What happened today in Mariupol is a terrible tragedy; the murder of civilians by terrorists. We sympathise with the families of those killed and wounded; and with all the inhabitants of Mariupol."

He said that he was praying for the "repose of the souls of the deceased, for the health of the wounded, for God's help and protection", especially for those who were living in what he described as "the occupied territories", and "for victory over the aggressor and the establishment of a just peace in the Ukrainian land of the Donbass".

European foreign ministers were due to meet in emergency session yesterday to discuss extending their sanctions on Russia. It was expected that the talks would agree the principles of any extension; but that they would not come into effect until the informal meeting of EU leaders next month.

In an unusual move, the leaders of the 28 EU countries, including the UK, issued a joint statement on Monday condemning the Mariupol attacks.

"We note evidence of continued and growing support given to the separatists by Russia, which underlines Russia's responsibility," they said. "We urge Russia to condemn the separatists' actions and to implement the Minsk agreements."

The leaders said that they were calling on their foreign ministers to "assess the situation and to consider any appropriate action, in particular on further restrictive measures".

On Tuesday, however, a spokesman for the new extreme-left Syriza-led government of Greece said that the statement had not been approved by the new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras. Syriza's MEPs have consistently adopted pro-Russian positions, and have voted against the EU's Association Agreement with Ukraine.

Speaking at the weekend, President Obama said that he was "deeply concerned" about the latest violence and "the aggression that these separatists, with Russian backing, Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training and Russian troops, are conducting".

"We will continue to...ratchet up the pressure on Russia, and I will look at all additional options short of military confrontation," he said.

This week, the international ratings agency Standard & Poor's announced that it was downgrading Russia's credit status to "junk" level. The Russian stock market has seen sharp falls, and the value of the rouble continues to fall.

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