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Easter on the barricades

Pro-Russian forces refuse to leave seized buildings

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Manu Brabo / The Associated Press
Barbed wire covers religious icons outside an administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine.

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Manu Brabo / The Associated Press Barbed wire covers religious icons outside an administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine.

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine on Saturday prepared to celebrate Orthodox Easter at barricades outside government offices seized in nearly a dozen cities, despite an international agreement to disarm and free the premises.

In Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, a co-chairman of the self-appointed Donetsk People's Republic, which is demanding broader regional powers and closer ties to Russia, vowed insurgents will continue occupying government offices until the new pro-western Kyiv government is dismissed.

"We will leave only after the Kyiv junta leaves," Pushilin told The Associated Press outside the occupied regional administration building. "First Kyiv, then Donetsk."

Nearby, retiree Ksenia Shuleyko, 65, was handing out pieces of home-made Easter raisin cake, traditionally served for Orthodox Easter. Speaking from a red tent, decorated with a red hammer-and-sickle Soviet Union flag, Shuleyko expressed hope Russia, which annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula last month, would also wield influence in the Donetsk region near the border with Russia, known as the Donbass.

"We believe in Russia. It helped Crimea, it will also help the Donbass," Shuleyko said. "God will help those who believe, and we do believe." Moments later, she performed a patriotic Soviet-era song together with other demonstrators and could not hold back tears.

The Easter preparations and fortification efforts come two days after top diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union issued a statement calling for an array of actions including the disarming of militant groups and the freeing of public buildings taken over by insurgents.

Those terms quickly became a heated issue as pro-Russian armed groups that have seized police stations and other government buildings in eastern Ukraine said they wouldn't vacate unless the country's acting government resigned. At the same time, Pushilin told the RIA-Novosti news agency his group could take part in a nation-wide roundtable on easing the crisis, which has been proposed by Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and candidate in the May 25 presidential election.

The insurgents say the Kyiv authorities, who took power after pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February following months of protests, aim to suppress the country's Russian speakers. Eastern Ukraine, which was Yanukovych's support base, has a substantial Russian-speaking population.

The new government insists it is legitimate and has no plans to resign, having been formed after Yanukovych fled Ukraine and approved by some members of his party. While Russia continues to criticize the new government, it has engaged in direct talks with it. The new government says it is working on constitutional reforms, which will give eastern regions a greater voice in self-governance.

Ukraine's turmoil has sparked the most severe East-West tensions since the Cold War. Washington and the EU imposed sanctions on Russia after it annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea last month following a referendum that overwhelmingly approved Crimean secession. Russia has positioned troops in regions bordering Ukraine and critics say Moscow is encouraging unrest in eastern Ukraine and seeking a pretext for a military incursion.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk expressed fear Russian President Vladimir Putin was seeking to restore Moscow's previous geopolitical and territorial might.

"President Putin has a dream to restore the Soviet Union. And every day, he goes further and further. And God knows where is the final destination," Yatsenyuk told NBC's Meet the Press in excerpts released Saturday. The full interview will air today.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Saturday deputy minister Grigory Karasin met with Oleg Tsaryov, a pro-Russia candidate in the Ukrainian presidential election that is to take place May 25.

"The Russian side noted that the questions of resolving the internal political crisis should be decided by Ukrainians themselves in close co-operation with a special monitoring mission" of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said a statement summarizing the meeting. "Russia is prepared to show the most wide support in this."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2014 A7

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