More than 30 killed in Odessa blaze as Ukraine violence spreads
More than 30 people were killed in a "criminal" blaze in Ukraine's southern city of Odessa, as violence spread across the country on Friday during the bloodiest day since Kiev's Western-backed government took power.
Ukraine's interior ministry said at least 31 people had died in the fire with local media reporting that pro-Russian militants were believed to have been in the building at the time.
Most of those who were killed died from smoke inhalation, while others perished trying to escape by jumping out of windows.
News of the deaths came after a day of violent clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian militants, with reports of renewed fighting in Slavyansk late on Friday leading to the death of two more Ukrainian soldiers, meaning at least nine people had been killed in clashes in the flashpoint town throughout the day.
The diplomatic war of words also intensified as the United States threatened to hit Russia with new sanctions within three weeks over what Washington called its continued "destabilisation" of Ukraine.
President Barack Obama threatened to expand punitive sanctions to broad sections of the Russian economy if Moscow continued to foment chaos in the former Soviet republic ahead of planned May 25 presidential elections.
"If in fact we see the disruptions and the destabilisation continuing so severely that it impedes elections on May 25, we will not have a choice but to move forward with additional... severe sanctions," Obama said at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"If Russia continues on its current course, we have a range of tools at our disposal, including sanctions that would target certain sectors of the Russian economy," Obama said.
Previously the administration has said such measures would only come into force if Russia sent its estimated 40,000 troops on the border into Ukraine.
US Secretary of State John Kerry also on Friday evening announced the postponement of a phone call with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as tensions mounted.
While Obama was speaking, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council took place at Russia's request, to complain about the Ukrainian army's assault on the flashpoint town of Slavyansk.
The Kremlin said the raid was "leading Ukraine towards catastrophe" and pronounced dead a peace deal struck in Geneva last month to ease the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev urged the Western-backed leaders in Kiev to "stop killing their citizens," saying the raid was "a sign of criminal helplessness".
Ukraine's interim president Oleksandr Turchynov said "many rebels" had been killed in the military's pre-dawn raid on the eastern town of Slavyansk and confirmed the loss of two servicemen after insurgents shot down two helicopter gunships.
Rebels later said three of their number and two citizens were killed in what they said was a "full-scale attack". They vowed to defend the town, which has become the epicentre of tensions in increasingly volatile eastern Ukraine.
Kiev said its military overran nine rebel checkpoints and scores of soldiers, backed by armoured vehicles and helicopters, appeared to entrench their positions, tightening their encirclement of the flashpoint town.
The attack seemed to dash hopes of a quick release of seven European monitors being held in Slavyansk, with one senior rebel leader saying it would result in a "delay".
Rebels parked two previously captured armoured vehicles in front of the town hall where they are holding the seven OSCE observers they seized on April 25.
Deepening the day's violence, three other people were also killed in the port city of Odessa, where pro-Russian militants clashed with 1,500 people holding a rally for Ukrainian unity.
Turchynov has reintroduced conscription in Ukraine and ordered his military on "full combat alert" amid fears of a Russian invasion.
- 'Lay down your arms' -
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page that rebels used shoulder-launched missiles to down the helicopters.
"It's a real battle we are waging against professional mercenaries," he wrote.
"Our demands for the terrorists are simple: release their hostages, lay down their arms, leave administrative buildings and restore the normal functioning of the urban infrastructure."
The self-proclaimed pro-Russian mayor of the town, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, urged "women, children and pensioners to stay in their homes" and "all armed men to help" combat the assault.
"We will defend the town and we will win," the mayor, dressed in camouflage uniform and wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet, said in a video posted on a local website.
There was further fighting in Slavyansk on Friday evening, which saw two more Ukranian soldiers killed.
"A group of armed extremists attacked Ukrainian soldiers of the 95th Paratroop Brigade.... Intense combat ensued. Two Ukrainian soldiers are dead," Ukraine's defence ministry said in a statement.
Russian news agencies quoted Putin's spokesman as saying the offensive on Slavyansk was "essentially finishing off the last hope for the feasibility of the Geneva accord".
Russia's envoy to the OSCE, Andrei Kelin, said Moscow had urged the pan-European body to "take steps to stop this reprisal raid," according to the ITAR-TASS news agency.
- Russian gas threat -
Meanwhile, in Warsaw, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told reporters that state-run gas firm Gazprom could restrict supplies to Ukraine -- and by extension several European countries -- if Kiev did not pre-pay its bill for June by the end of this month.
Kiev is expected to use part of a $17-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, announced on Wednesday, to settle the bill.
The unrest in Ukraine started with peaceful demonstrations in Kiev in November against pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych but has rapidly degenerated into a full-blown global crisis.
After a deadly crackdown on protesters, Yanukovych was forced out in February and replaced with the Western-backed administration. That sparked fury in Moscow, which responded with a blitz annexation of Crimea.
© 2014 AFP