Russia claims troops are pulling back
Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces were leaving the regions near Ukraine as part of a military pullout ordered by President Vladimir Putin. NATO had estimated Russia had 40,000 troops along the border. Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme commander in Europe, said in Brussels that some Russian military movements had been detected but it was too early to assess their size or importance. He said a very large and capable Russian force still remained close to Ukraine.
In the deadliest raid yet on Ukrainian troops, pro-Russia insurgents attacked a military checkpoint Thursday, killing 16 soldiers, and the interim prime minister accused Moscow of trying to disrupt this weekend’s election for a new president to lead the divided country.
A rebel commander said one of his fighters also died in the raid in eastern Ukraine, which left a gruesome scene of charred military vehicles and bodies near the town of Volnovakha, 20 miles south of the city of Donetsk.
Witnesses, including a medical worker, said more than 30 Ukrainian troops were wounded, with some in grave condition. Fighting also raged in at least two other villages.
The armed uprising and the government’s offensive to put it down have cast a shadow over Sunday’s election, with Kiev acknowledging it will be impossible to hold the vote in some areas.
In the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatists have declared independence and pledged to derail the vote, election workers reported threats and interference from gunmen.
Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of escalating the conflict and trying to disrupt the election. In a post on Facebook, he called for an urgent session of the U.N. Security Council and said Ukraine would present evidence of Moscow’s involvement.
In the attack on the checkpoint, residents said the rebels arrived in an armored bank truck, which the unsuspecting Ukrainian soldiers waved through. The rebels opened fire with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said.
The Donetsk regional administration and a Health Ministry official said 16 soldiers were killed. Reporters saw 11 dead soldiers in the field near the village of Blahodatne, outside Volnovakha.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the attackers hit an ammunition section in one of the military vehicles, which exploded in a fireball. Three blackened armored infantry vehicles, their turrets blown away, and several burned trucks stood at the site. Bodies apparently burned by the explosion and fire were scattered nearby.
A leading rebel commander claimed responsibility for the raid. In the courtyard of the occupied police headquarters of the town of Horlivka, he displayed seized Ukrainian weapons and the passports of what he said were two of the dead soldiers. He also provided coordinates about the location of the attack shortly after it had occurred. There was no way to confirm his claim independently.
“We destroyed a checkpoint of the fascist Ukrainian army deployed on the land of the Donetsk Republic,” said the commander, who wore a balaclava and insisted he be identified by his nom de guerre, “Bes” — Russian for “demon.”
Many in the east resent the government in Kiev, seeing it as led by nationalists bent on repressing the Russian-speaking minority. The interim government came to power in February after street protests chased pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power.
But many in the rebellious regions also have grown increasingly exasperated with the insurgents, whom they blame for putting civilians in the crossfire.
In the village of Semenovka on the outskirts of Slovyansk, shelling damaged several houses. Zinaida Patskan had her roof torn away by an explosion that also shattered a wall.
“Why are they are hitting us?” the 80-year-old said, bursting into tears. “We are peaceful people!”
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