MOSCOW — Separatists appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday to deploy Russian troops in eastern Ukraine after a shootout Easter night on the outskirts of Slovyansk left at least three people dead and four injured.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich, fascists who are killing our brothers are trying to conquer our small provincial town," Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, a separatist leader and self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, said in his television appeal on Rossiya-24 news network. "This is why we are asking you in the nearest time to consider the issue of introducing a peacekeeping contingent to protect peaceful civilians from the Right Sector and the national guard of Ukraine which bring about death."
At least two attackers were killed and two of their utility vehicles were burned, Rossiya-24 reported. Paraphernalia belonging to the Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist organization, was found in one of the vehicles, the report said.
Eastern Ukraine has been roiled in recent weeks by pro-Russian militants who have taken over government buildings in several cities and pressed for greater autonomy within Ukraine or secession and perhaps unity with Russia. Ukrainian and many Western officials have blamed Russia, which seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last month, for instigating the violence.
Ukraine law enforcement authorities confirmed Sunday's shootout and the three deaths, but a statement on the Security Service website called it a provocation staged by pro-Russian militants "assisted and armed by Russia's military intelligence officers."
The Right Sector also denied its involvement in the shooting, saying in a statement posted Sunday on its website that "any attempts to tie these actions with the Right Sector pursue the only goal of evoking in the residents of eastern Ukraine fear of the Right Sector activists."
On Thursday, representatives of the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union reached an agreement in Geneva to de-escalate the clashes in Ukraine. The accord in part called on armed groups to decamp from the official buildings they have seized and surrender their weapons.
So far, the armed pro-Russia militants have rejected the agreement, demanding first the disarming of Ukrainian security forces and the resignation of the interim Ukrainian government, which took power in February after the overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich following months of sometimes deadly protests.
On Friday, the Security Service called off its attacks on the separatists for the Easter holiday weekend.
Putin said Thursday that he reserves the right to use the Russian army in Ukraine.
"We know quite well that we must do our best to protect their rights and help them independently decide their fate, and we will struggle for that," Putin said at his annual call-in show in a Moscow television studio. "I remind you that the Federation Council of Russia [the upper house of Parliament] empowered the president to use the armed forces in Ukraine."
Sunday's attack in Slovyansk is a further sign that Russia is seeking to destabilize Ukraine to justify military intervention, said Dmitry Tymchuk, a Ukrainian defense expert.
"Russia doesn't have an international mandate to deploy its peacekeepers or whoever in Ukraine," Tymchuk, head of Kiev-based Center for Military and Political Research, said in a telephone interview, "and any move of that kind will be another act of military aggression, which in fact is already taking place."