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article imageRussian Federation begins gradual invasion of eastern Ukraine

By Nathan Salant     Apr 12, 2014 in World
Slavyansk - Russia's long-expected invasion of eastern Ukraine may be underway Saturday as masked gunmen have seized government buildings in two cities near the border.
Anti-government separatists seized government buildings in two cities in eastern Ukraine on Saturday, signalling what could be the start of a slow-motion invasion by the Russian Federation.
Pro-Russia activists carrying automatic weapons seized control of Slavyansk and set up barricades around the city near the Russian border, according to the Reuters interantional news service.
Separatists also seized the police station in Kramatorsk and attacked government buildings near Donetsk and Luhansk, Reuters said.
Ukrainian officials denounced the attacks as an "act of aggression by Russia" and threatened to send troops to battle protesters despite warnings from Moscow.
Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean peninsula -- almost without firing a shot -- in a gradual invasion last month.
US officials said the building seizures were similar to actions that preceded the Crimea seizure and demanded that Russia stop aiding the separatists and withdraw troops from its border with Ukraine.
"We are very concerned by the concerted campaign we see under way in eastern Ukraine today by pro-Russian separatists, apparently with support from Russia," Laura Lucas Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the US National Security Council," told Reuters.
"We call on President (Vladimir) Putin and his government to cease all efforts to destabilize Ukraine, and we caution against further military intervention," Magnuson said.
But the Russian Federation claims its seized Crimea to protect Russian-speaking residents of eastern Ukraine, and that its massing of troops on Ukraine's border is for military maneuvers, not an invasion, Reuters said.
Ukraine's interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said the unrest in the east was "a display of external aggression from Russia," Reuters said.
"Units of the interior and defense ministries are implementing an operational response plan," he said.
But Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said the attacks illustrated that Ukraine was unable "to take responsibility for the fate of the country" and protect the country's Russian-speaking population, Reuters said.
Lavrov also warned the West that any use of force by Ukraine would "undermine the potential for cooperation" at talks scheduled later this week in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine, the US and the European Union.
In Saturday's attacks, as many as two dozen men armed with pistols and automatic weapons took over Slavyansk's police station and a security service headquarters before emptying the buildings' weapons lockers.
More than 1,000 people began demonstrating in favor of a Russian takeover at the front of the police station, Reuters said, and cheered when the Ukrainian flag was replaced by the flag of the newly declared Donetsk Republic.
"We want to join Russia," a gunman named Alexander in camouflage fatigues and a black mask told Reuters.
"We would be very grateful if Russia helps us," he said.
Outside Slavyansk, men armed with automatic rifles set up a roadblock and checked vehicles entering the city.
In Donetsk, the regional capital, Police Chief Kostyantyn Pozhydayev told pro-Russia protesters outside his office that he was quitting to avoid bloodshed, Reuters said.
Russia has backed away from its threat to cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine and the rest of Europe but still has more than doubled the price of the fuel it sells to Kiev.
Russia's state-owned gas monopoly, Gazprom, and Ukraine's company, Naftogaz, are said to be negotiating about future prices and past, unpaid bills owed by Ukraine, but any cutoff would likely also affect countries west of Ukraine, Reuters said.
Moscow has said it does not want to turn off Ukraine's gas and that it will honor its commitments to supply customers in the EU, Reuters said.
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