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Ukraine Rebels’ Ultimatum Expires as Election Edges Closer

The violence shows no signs of dying down as the sounds of fighting seem to edge ever closer to Slovyansk.

by Harriet Salem
May 15 2014, 10:40pm

Image via AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Automatic gunfire and explosions once again echoed through the night in Slovyansk as the clock ticked down on the rebels' ultimatum for Ukrainian troops to withdraw from the Donetsk region.

Earlier today clashes were reported in villages near Starovarvarovka, 25 miles from the rebels' heartland in Sloviansk. And last night Ukraine's acting president Oleksandr Turchynov claimed the Ukrainian army destroyed an insurgent base in the city of Slovyansk, and another one in nearby Kramatorsk.

Neither of these reports could not be confirmed by journalists, who were pushed back after a Ukrainian APC fired warning shots in the air.

On Wednesday the rebels announced a 24-hour deadline for Ukraine's troops to withdraw 12-18 miles from the Donetsk oblast. Appearing in front of television cameras Wednesday, Sergey Zdrilyuk, the right-hand man to the militia's commander Igor Strelkov, played anxiously with a pen and smoked as he told press that there would be "no negotiations."

"I will not bear responsibility for what I will do... everything will be burnt and destroyed... the subversive groups are ready," he said.

Zdrilyuk issued an ultimatum to the Ukrainian government on May 14, saying his group would destroy and burn everything if troops did not pull out of the Donetsk region.

But tonight, as the rebels’ deadline expired, the violence showed no signs of dying down as the sounds of fighting seemed to edge ever closer to Slovyansk.

Tensions have risen since the weekend’s rebel-held referendum, which resulted in a supposed public mandate for the Donetsk People's Republic, and a coalition between Luhansk and Donetsk, two rebel-held oblasts in eastern Ukraine. Questions have been raised over the legitimacy of the hastily organized and unsupervised vote, as elections for a new president of Ukraine are due to be held on May 25. It is uncertain whether the vote will go ahead in the militia-controlled areas.

Clashes between the pro-Russia rebel forces and Ukrainian army on the outskirts of the city have become an almost daily occurrence since Kiev announced that the anti-terrorism operation aimed at dislodging the militia had entered its "active" phase on May 2.

Victoria, a 28-year-old mother of one, told VICE News how her family used to hide inside when they heard clashes start, but now they are used to it.

"Now the kids just play outside as long as the shooting is not too close," she said.

Schools in the city have been closed since the clashes began more than a week ago.

Doorstep chaos mounts in Eastern Ukraine as Kiev talks waver. Read more here.

Both sides have become increasingly bold in their willingness to use deadly force. Two days ago the rebels used rocket-propelled grenades to attack Ukrainian convoy of military vehicles travelling through Oktyabrskoe village to supply an army stronghold near a Slovyansk TV tower, which has been used as a position to shell rebel forces. The assault killed six soldiers, according to the Defense Ministry, which launched a full-scale helicopter rescue mission to pull out its dead and wounded.

Despite a number of skirmishes, Ukraine’s soldiers have so far failed to make substantial inroads into the rebel held territory, seemingly deploying an approach of two steps forward, one step back.

The tactic has given the rebels time to fortify the city, and VICE News has witnessed a dramatic change in the militia’s readiness. What was once a ragtag group of armed men now has the appearance of pseudo soldiers. Sandbag gun positions are present at most checkpoints, as are men armed with automatic weapons and increasing amounts of rocket-propelled grenades.

On Wednesday representatives from the rebel leaders were notably absent at roundtable talks on "national unity" chaired by veteran German diplomat Wolfgang Schauble, though the discussions quickly descended into mutual finger pointing. Representatives from the government in Kiev blamed Russia for orchestrating the unrest, while politicians from the East said that the government showed a lack of respect for the rights of the country's Russian speakers.

Moscow has called Kiev's refusal to invite rebel leaders to the table a "stubborn reluctance of authorities in Kiev to launch a real process of national reconciliation," while Ukraine's interim prime minister has said he will not negotiate with "terrorists" who have "blood on their hands."

A second round of negotiations is rumored to take place in Donetsk this weekend, although Kiev has expressed reticence about the security of sending its representatives to eastern Ukraine. The rebels' leaders have said talks are only possible if Ukraine's "occupying forces are withdrawn from their territory" and discussions center on prisoner swaps.

The people's mayor of Slovyansk told a monitoring mission sent by the OSCE that he has at least 40 people captive in the basement of the city's SBU building. Twenty of these have been independently confirmed.

The Kiev-backed authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk region have said that they will push ahead to hold the presidential elections, which are scheduled to take place in less than ten days.

The EU has warned that a further round of sanctions will be imposed on Russia, which it accuses of orchestrating the unrest, if the May vote is "disrupted."

As the election approaches there has been an intimidation campaign against officials attempting to organize the vote, which the Donetsk People's Republic authorities have called "illegal." On Wednesday the head of the election commission in Kramatorsk was kidnapped by armed, masked men and then later released.

In a Praskoveyevka, 10 miles from Sloviansk, the village council's secretary said preparations to hold the vote were underway, but that the situation was very "uncertain."

Russia-aligned cossacks from the local village, a prominent force in the rebel movement, said that they would not allow the election to go ahead.

The rebels have appealed to the Kremlin to send peacekeeping forces to Ukraine's east. Moscow has not yet formally responded to the request, but Wednesday Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov warned that "Ukraine was closer than ever to civil war." The Kremlin has repeatedly warned that it will intervene if Russian speakers in the region are under threat.

Moscow has adopted an increasingly diplomatic tone of late in the international arena, but has shown no qualms about simultaneously tightening the financial screws on Ukraine's beleaguered government. Today Putin issued a letter to European leaders warning that Kiev has to pay its gas bills up front as of next month, because of unpaid debts. Ukraine owes the Russian company Gazprom $3.5 billion.

Watch all of VICE News' Russian Roulette dispatches here.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem