Ukraine orders new operation in the east

By Nedra Pickler and Maria Danilova / The Associated Press

Published Apr 23, 2014 at 12:01AM

In Ukraine’s east, the challenge of figuring out who is in charge

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — When armed men seized the police station in this eastern Ukrainian city, mayor Nelya Shtepa declared she was on their side. She changed her story a few days later. Then she disappeared — the victim of an apparent abduction by the man who now lays claim to her job.

On Tuesday, she resurfaced, expressing support once again for the pro-Russia insurgents — but possibly no longer as mayor.

The mayoral mess, which pits the flamboyant leopard print-clad Shtepa against a mysterious rival who favors black baseball caps, reflects the anger, confusion and lawlessness that have gripped eastern Ukraine as armed groups opposed to the country’s interim government seize police stations and government buildings.

In town after town in the beleaguered east, it’s hard to tell who’s in control — and the situation in Slovyansk is just one of the most dramatic examples. Since the unrest began, pro-Russia insurgents have adopted a strategy of electing so-called people’s leaders: mayors and regional governors who claim to represent the people’s will, despite their questionable background and skills for the job. One reportedly is under criminal investigation, another is an Internet blogger.

The man who now claims to be mayor says Shtepa was under the care of his comrades in the pro-Russia forces. But Vyacheslav Ponomarev is himself a dubious figure: No one seems to know his past and Ponomarev refuses to give any clarification.

Speaking on a popular TV show last Wednesday, Shtepa complained of lootings by the insurgents and claimed that they were the Russian military: “Today, these already are Green Men,” Shtepa said in a reference to military men aligned with Moscow. Little is known about the armed men other than their pro-Russia sentiments; it’s not even clear whether they are Russian or Ukrainian or a mixture of both.

The following morning, she walked into city hall for a meeting with Ponomarev — and wasn’t seen again for five days.

On Tuesday, the Russian news site LifeNews ran a video interview with her — in what the site said was her former office — praising the insurgents as men with “strong souls” and thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin for annexing Crimea. The report also showed what it said was a resignation letter that Shtepa willingly signed.

— The Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s acting president ordered security forces to resume operations in the country’s east on Tuesday after the bodies of two people allegedly abducted by pro-Russia insurgents were found and a military aircraft was reportedly hit by gunfire.

The developments — just hours after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden left the Ukrainian capital — raised fears that last week’s international agreement on easing Ukraine’s crisis was unraveling.

The accord calls for all sides to refrain from violence and for demonstrators to vacate public buildings. It does not specifically prohibit security operations, but Ukraine suspended its so-called “anti-terrorist operation” after it was reached.

Pro-Russia insurgents who have seized police stations and other public buildings in eastern Ukraine are defying the call to vacate, saying they were not party to the agreement by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union.

In a statement, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said the two bodies found Tuesday in Slovyansk bore signs of torture. One of the victims was a member of the city council and a member of Turchynov’s party, he said.

Terrorists “are beginning to torture and kill Ukrainian patriots. They are impudently rejecting the calls of not only our country but of all the world’s society when they demonstratively mock the decisions taken in Geneva,” he said.

“These crimes are being done with the full support and connivance of Russia,” Turchynov added.

The acting government, which took over after President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia in February, says Russia is behind the unrest in eastern Ukraine which it fears Moscow could use as a pretext for an invasion. Last month, Russia annexed Crimea weeks after seizing control of the peninsula.