KIEV, Ukraine -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Kiev on Monday for talks with Ukraine's embattled interim leaders as Russia's top diplomat blamed Washington for instigating the crisis that threatens to escalate into armed conflict between the two former Soviet republics.
In eastern Ukraine, armed militants defying a disarmament plan endorsed by Russia last week stepped up their seizure of government buildings and security facilities.
In the town of Kramatorsk, in the north of the Donetsk region, separatists broke into a police station and kidnapped the police chief, local online publication Kramatorsk.info reported.
In Luhansk, capital in the neighboring region of the same name, young separatists in masks and armed with sticks and baseball bats attacked a rally in support of Ukrainian unity, shouting "fascists" and "traitors," independent Channel 5 reported. Militants continue to hold the Ukraine Security Service headquarters in Luhansk and have captured hundreds of firearms, UNIAN news agency reported.
And in Slovyansk, scene of an Easter Sunday shootout that left at least three dead, gunmen took over the area and barricaded its key intersections and commercial sites, reporter Denis Kazansky of the regional online publication Ostrov said.
"Armed men in masks roam the streets, barricaded at intersections, banks and jewelry stores closed after the first robbery last week, the municipal services are on the brink of collapse," Kazansky told The Times in a phone interview. "Russian commandos are allegedly hiding inside the local police station and running this growing chaos from there, turning the town into a fortress of lawlessness in the middle of Ukraine."
Biden began his two-day trip to Kiev in what the White House described as an attempt to show support for the interim government as it struggles to prevent further loss of Ukrainian territory to the Russian-speaking militants.
Biden was to meet with a visiting U.S. congressional delegation and Ukrainian civil society representatives later Monday, before talks Tuesday with acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk.
But his mission was being cast by Russian officials and state-run media as Washington's search for "a face-saving exit from its foreign policy catastrophe" in Ukraine.
The Voice of Russia deemed the visit as a necessity to find a way out of the crisis created by U.S. support for the three-month rebellion that ousted Ukraine's pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovich, in February. Turchynov, Yatsenyuk and other opposition lawmakers who have taken over as interim leaders ahead of a May 25 presidential election are dismissed by Russian officials as "coup-installed" and lacking authority to decide the country's affairs.
The broadcast citing Russian political analysts also referred to the reported visit to Kiev the previous week by CIA Director John Brennan, enhancing the suggestion that the interim leadership in Kiev is being run by Washington. The commentary noted that Brennan's visit "coincided with the decision by the Kiev authorities to crack down on pro-federalization protests in eastern Ukraine."
Russian officials insist the armed separatists in eastern Ukraine are peaceful civilians demonstrating in demand of constitutional reform to change Ukraine from a unitary state to a federation in which the regions would have broad autonomy to decide their own domestic and foreign affairs.
Negotiations on constitutional revisions were called for in a "de-escalation" plan drafted by the top diplomats from Russia, the United States, the European Union and Ukraine at a meeting in Geneva on Thursday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who signed off on the Geneva plan for Russia, joined the pro-Russia militants in accusing Yatsenyuk's government of being illegitimate and therefore subject to the plan's requirement that all "illegal armed groups" surrender their weapons and leave government buildings they have seized.
Gunmen holding public facilities in a dozen eastern Ukrainian towns and cities have refused to abide by the agreement until the Kiev government, which they contend is an illegal armed group, ceases efforts to recover the occupied sites from the pro-Russia militants.
Lavrov also described the Ukraine crisis as one of Washington's making.
"Instead of giving ultimatums and threatening us with sanctions, Washington should realize in full measure its responsibility for those people they brought to power in Kiev," Lavrov said during a Moscow news briefing, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.
The tense standoffs in eastern Ukraine escalated over the weekend in the town of Slovyansk, where at least three people were killed in a shootout at a checkpoint manned by Russian-speaking gunmen demanding independence from Kiev. The gunmen claimed to have found evidence of the Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist group, having staged the attack, while the group denied involvement and the Kiev government denounced the shooting as a "cynical provocation" by Russia.
The self-proclaimed leader of the Slovyansk occupation, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, on Sunday appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to send troops and aid so his forces could defeat "fascists who are killing our brothers."
Pro-Russia gunmen in Slovyansk also were reported Monday to have detained five journalists -- two Ukrainians, two Italians and a Belorussian -- for questioning.
Kazansky, the online journalist, said the reporters were released after a few hours during which they were "roughed up and lectured hard-style" by their captors.
Russian online broadcaster Life News posted video on its website showing Ukrainian television journalist Irma Krat blindfolded and being led away by several masked gunmen. In the video also posted on YouTube, the woman identified as Krat said she was being treated humanely while her captors investigated their claims that she was involved in "war crimes" while covering the rebellion in Kiev.
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