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Ukraine, Russia trade blame for eastern shootout

BYLBASIVKA, Ukraine – Ukraine and Russia traded blame Sunday for a shootout at a checkpoint manned by pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine that left at least three people dead and others with gunshot wounds.

The identity of the attackers remained unclear. Russia blamed militant Ukrainian nationalists and the Ukrainian government said the attack near the city of Slovyansk was staged by provocateurs from outside the country.

The armed clash appeared to be the first since an international agreement was reached last week in Geneva to ease tensions in eastern Ukraine, where armed pro-Russia activists have seized government buildings in at least 10 cities.

Ukraine and many in the West fear that such clashes could provide a pretext for Russia to seize more Ukrainian territory.

Russia, which annexed the peninsula of Crimea last month, has tens of thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine. Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, originally said the troops were there for military exercises, but Putin’s spokesman on Saturday acknowledged that some were there due to instability in eastern Ukraine.

The self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk appealed to Russia on Sunday to send in peacekeeping troops.

“They are killing our brothers,” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov said during a news conference in Slovyansk shown on Russian state television.

Yuri Zhadobin, who coordinates the pro-Russia unit manning the checkpoint in the village of Bylbasivka, told The Associated Press he was with about 20 men celebrating Easter when unknown men drove up in four vehicles and opened fire about 3 a.m.

“We began to shoot back from behind the barricades and we threw Molotov cocktails at them,” Zhadobin said. Two of the vehicles caught fire and the attackers fled in the other two, he said.

Some of his men were wounded and one later died in the hospital, he said.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry’s office in the eastern Donetsk region later released a statement saying three people had died in the attack and three others were wounded. The statement said some of the attackers were also killed or wounded, but the number was not known.

Russian state media reported five people dead, including three pro-Russia activists.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry quickly blamed the clash on the Right Sector, a nationalist Ukrainian group that has supported the interim government in Kiev, the capital, but is not part of it.

But a spokesman for Right Sector, Artyom Skoropatskiy, denied any involvement in Sunday’s shootout, which he called a provocation staged by Russian special services.

Ukraine’s Security Service also called the attack a “cynical provocation” staged from “the outside.”

Putin has rejected claims that Russian special forces are directing or encouraging the insurgents. Putin has said he hopes not to send troops into eastern Ukraine, but he retains the right to intervene if necessary to protect ethnic Russians living here.

Russian state media have been feeding fears among the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine that their lives are in danger because of the Right Sector.

“See what is happening?” asked Andrei Zarubin, 30, who came to the Bylbasivka checkpoint Sunday afternoon to replace those who had come under attack. “Russia should defend us ... who else can we turn to for help?”

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