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REFILE 1ST LEAD Separatists form New Russia amid jitters about Ukraine election By Andreas Stein, dpa

Europe
24.05.2014
By our dpa-correspondent and Europe Online    auf Facebook posten  Auf Twitter posten  
Kiev (dpa) - Two breakaway Ukrainian regions on Saturday announced their merger as the new country of New Russia, even as fears grew that separatist elements in the region could destabilize Ukrainian presidential elections set for the next day.

Donetsk and Luhansk - which voted to break away from Ukraine earlier this month in a referendum contested by Ukraine and the international community - signed a contract in the city of Donetsk, in a heavily guarded ceremony only accessible to Russian state television.

The agreement would form a country of 6.5 million people. The move is seen by Ukraine and its Western supporters as a provocation, especially coming one day before the country‘s first presidential elections since the last elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled Kiev amid pro-Western protests earlier this year.

The separatists argue that they have closer ties to Russia, which is widely believed to be lending support to their movement. Russia already annexed another former Ukrainian region - Crimea - after separatists took control there in March.

Armed pro-Russian separatists on Saturday occupied an administrative building in the eastern city of Donetsk, local media reported.

Some 50 armed men were involved in the night-time operation. No one was injured. There were also unconfirmed reports that militants had been seen at a hospital in Donetsk where government soldiers are being treated.

The separatists have refused to recognize the election and threatened to derail the vote.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said the election commission could not operate in at least half of the polling stations in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

A ministry official said that about 17,000 security service workers in Donetsk and Luhansk have either joined the separatists in recent weeks or refused to continue working. Cases had been opened against the "traitors," he said.

Thirteen soldiers were killed this week while trying to protect the city of Volnovakha from pro-Russian separatists, the highest death toll suffered by Ukrainian government troops since the launch of a military operation in April against militants in the east.

President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday that Russia will respect the presidential election in Ukraine, but stopped short of declaring Sunday‘s poll legitimate.

Allegations of interference by Russia in the Ukraine crisis have prompted criticism against Putin, most recently from Britain‘s Prince Charles, who was quoted comparing Putin to German dictator Adolf Hitler.

Putin lashed out Saturday, saying such comments were "unacceptable," "wrong," and "not what monarchs do," the BBC reported.

Ukraine has also accused Russia of supporting the efforts of pro-Russian forces trying to cross the border into eastern Ukraine. Kiev‘s Foreign Ministry confirmed that armed gunmen had entered the country with five lorries and two cars, and that Russian border patrols had helped them to do so.

The European Union has been preparing three scenarios for economic sanctions against Russia if it continues to destabilize its western neighbour. Those range from low-intensity measures affecting items such as luxury goods, to a ban on oil and gas imports.

The issue could come up when EU leaders meet on Tuesday to consider their response to this weekend‘s election in Ukraine.

 

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