MOSCOW — Heavily armed separatists held Ukrainian government buildings and hostages Tuesday as tensions increased sharply and threatened to push a dispute over treatment of the country's ethnic Russians into bloodshed.
Ukrainian government officials said pro-Russia separatists had rigged explosives in a building in Luhansk and were holding hostages inside. Officials dispatched a deputy prime minister to another city, Donetsk, to try to negotiate a peaceful solution to the takeover of an administration building in that mining city.
Russia seized control of Ukraine's
A move in eastern Ukraine would be far more difficult for Russia than its Crimea seizure was. The region has a sizable ethnic Russian population but, unlike in Crimea, it's a minority. And Crimea was for centuries part of Russia.
Analysts say it's crucial for Ukraine's interim government to manage the discord until May 25 elections. The vote is likely to show that the government does have popular support, they said, blunting Russia's argument that Ukraine has been taken over by extremists.
Reacting to Ukraine's moves to impose order, Russia issued a blunt warning Tuesday in a Foreign Ministry statement: "The organizers and participants in the operation are assuming huge responsibility for the creation of threats to the rights, freedoms and lives of peaceful residents of Ukraine."
It said Ukrainian forces had been augmented by about 150 security contractors from the U.S. private security firm Greystone, who were wearing Ukrainian uniforms.
In Washington, Secretary of State
"Everything that we've seen in the past 48 hours from Russian provocateurs and agents operating in eastern Ukraine tells us that they've been sent there determined to create chaos," he said in an appearance before the
Kerry met with President
After the Crimea seizure, the U.S. and
White House Press Secretary
The dispute began late last year when Ukraine's then-president,
The deputy head of the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council, Victoria Syumar, said in a post to her Facebook account that about 500 separatists had seized a government building in Luhansk and were holding hostages. "They have more than 1,000 firearms and some heavy weapons. [Ukrainian] special units are ready, but the risks are very serious."
In Donetsk, tycoon
"If there is a storm, I will be with you, suffering together with you, but I want to address the government and ask them ... to put off the storm," he said.
"To fight is not an option," he added. "Who will be better off if blood is shed?"
First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema said he had postponed an operation to clear out the separatists in order to give Akhmetov time to find a solution.
"They promised that they will be handing over weapons ... and will be leaving the building," Yarema told Hromadske. "In response I gave them my word that we will not use force, and I hope our agreement suits both the protesters and the police and there will be no bloodshed."
In reaction to the turmoil in eastern Ukraine, the nation's parliament voted Tuesday to toughen penalties for crimes linked to separatism, including raising the maximum penalty to life in prison.
Security and defense analyst Dmitry Tymchuk said Ukraine was building up its forces along the Russian border, "sending a clear message to the Kremlin that any attempt at invasion will result in a bloody military conflict between the two countries."