Ukraine tycoon calls for protest action against rebels
Ukraine's richest man called for peace rallies across the east Tuesday in a fierce condemnation of the pro-Russian insurgency that could mark a turning point in the crisis just days before the presidential election.
"People are tired of living in fear and terror," said billionaire powerbroker Rinat Ahkhmetov who wields huge influence in the east as the owner of a vast coal and steel conglomerate.
In his strongest statement yet against the pro-Kremlin separatists who have seized a string of towns and cities in a matter of weeks, Akhmetov warned that their actions would lead to "genocide".
Fears for the very survival of Ukraine have mounted since armed rebels launched an uprising against Kiev's caretaker government in April, emboldened by Russia's much-criticised seizure of Crimea.
The Ukrainian government hailed Akhmetov's intervention, with Interior Minister Arsen Avakov saying it will "help settle our differences and let our rifles gather dust".
In another move which could ease tensions ahead of Sunday's vote, the Kremlin -- accused by many of fomenting the insurgency -- said it has ordered its troops near the border with Ukraine to return to their bases.
The defence ministry said its forces were preparing their departure Tuesday, after both Washington and NATO -- which noted it was the third time Moscow had announced a pullback -- said they saw no sign of a withdrawal.
The presence of Russian troops near the border -- estimated to number 40,000 -- has raised deep concerns in the West, and NATO's chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday that a real withdrawal would be an "important contribution to de-escalating the crisis".
But a senior US official said Washington would want to see "clear, firm evidence of this move before we make any judgement".
In turn, Russia's army chief Valery Gerasimov complained to NATO about the alliance's activities on his country's borders, saying "it does not contribute to security in Europe".
Fearful that Russia could roll into Ukraine as it did in Crimea in March, the United States and NATO have sent troops to Poland and the Baltic states and deployed warships in the region.
President Vladimir Putin, currently on a visit to China, has denied any direct role in the uprising in the east, where rebels have declared sovereignty in the industrial hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk in defiance of Kiev and the West.
But on Monday the Kremlin called for Ukraine's pro-Western government to halt what it described as a "punitive operation" against the insurgents.
- 'Banditry and looting' -
Ukraine's election is seen in the West as crucial to ending a crisis that has taken on Cold War proportions since Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych was forced out after months of pro-European protests.
In his statement, Akhmetov -- a coalminer's son who was once Yanukovych's main financier -- said "millions" were ready to join peace rallies in opposition to the rebels.
"They are tired of going outside and coming under gunfire," he said, accusing the separatists of doing nothing for the areas under their control and instead roaming the streets with assault rifles and grenade launchers engaging in "banditry and looting".
AFP journalists reported that several thousand people had turned out in the southeastern city of Mariupol where Akhmetov has a huge metallurgical factory.
The tycoon, who has sought to tread a careful line between Kiev and Moscow, intervened to restore order in Mariupol last week after fighting left as many as 20 people dead.
Russia has recently rolled back its vehement opposition to the vote, although some analysts warn that it may still not recognised the outcome.
- Election won't produce 'miracle' -
And UN assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic cautioned Monday against expecting that the election would produce a "miracle" for Ukraine.
In an interview with AFP in Kiev, Simonovic also warned of a risk of a major exodus from rebel-held areas because of the near collapse of basic services there.
The UN refugee agency said on Tuesday that at least 10,000 people had been driven from their homes since the start of the Ukraine crisis, most of them Crimean Tatars.
Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk acknowledged it could be difficult to organise polling in some rebel-held districts but insisted: "The election will take place and we will have a legitimate president."
Still, it remains unclear how much credibility the poll will have, given the continued fighting that the United Nations says has already cost around 130 lives.
Ukraine's military has so far failed to dislodge the rebels from their strongholds and suffered a number of humiliating setbacks since it launched an offensive in the east in mid-April.
The international community is pushing for a negotiated settlement to the conflict under a peace roadmap sponsored by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Two rounds of so-called national unity dialogue have been held under OSCE auspices but Kiev's leaders have refused to invite the separatists, saying they will not negotiate with "terrorists."
© 2014 AFP