World readies new sanctions on Russia as Ukraine tensions mount
The United States and Europe have prepared fresh sanctions on Russia they could activate as soon as Monday over the crisis in Ukraine, where tensions spiked as rebels detained an international team of military observers.
The Group of Seven top economies and the European Union signalled they would step up economic pressure on Moscow early next week amid fears Russia was preparing an invasion of eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk claimed Russia violated his country's airspace seven times overnight with an aim "to provoke" Ukraine into starting a war.
But Moscow denied any transgression by its warplanes. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for "urgent measures" to de-escalate the crisis, which has plunged East-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Yatsenyuk cut short a visit to the Vatican as concern grew that the tens of thousands of Russian troops conducting military drills on the border could soon be ordered to invade.
A Western diplomat warned: "We no longer exclude a Russian military intervention in Ukraine in the coming days."
The diplomatic source noted that Russia's UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, "has been recalled urgently to Moscow" for consultations.
- 'Inhuman conditions' -
Meanwhile, international efforts were underway to secure the release of a 13-member mission from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe held hostage by pro-Russian militants in the flashpoint city of Slavyansk.
The chief of the insurgents' self-styled "Republic of Donetsk", Denis Pushilin, accused them of being "NATO spies" and said they would only be released in a prisoner swap for militants detained by Ukrainian forces.
As indignant Western powers demanded their immediate release, Russia's envoy to the OSCE said Moscow would "take all possible steps in this case".
"We believe that these people should be released as soon as possible," Andrei Kelin said.
Russian's foreign ministry also said Moscow was "taking measures" to resolve the situation but blamed the Ukrainian authorities for the hostage crisis.
"They were invited by the Ukrainian authorities" and their safety "rests fully with the receiving side", the foreign ministry in Moscow said.
The OSCE observers were sent to Ukraine to monitor an April 17 accord signed in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union that was meant to take the heat out of the crisis in the ex-Soviet republic.
An OSCE spokeswoman at the group's Vienna headquarters told AFP there were eight monitors from the mission: four Germans, a Dane, a Pole, a Swede and a Czech.
This group of eight monitors was accompanied by five Ukrainian army personnel, the defence ministry in Kiev said in a statement.
Speaking to reporters in Rome, Yatsenyuk said the detention was "unbelievable and unacceptable".
"This is another proof and evidence that these so-called peaceful protesters with Russian ideas are terrorists," he said.
Ukraine's own secret services said one of those detained "urgently" needed medical help.
The hostages were being held in "inhuman conditions" and were likely to be used as "a human shield effectively terrorising the whole international community", said the Kiev authorities.
- Fresh sanctions -
As the West and Russia traded barbs, the G7 group agreed on the need for further sanctions on the government of President Vladimir Putin.
In a joint statement, the G7 consisting of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States said it would "move swiftly to impose additional sanctions on Russia".
"These sanctions will be coordinated and complementary, but not necessarily identical. US sanctions could come as early as Monday," a senior US administration official said.
The United States and the European Union have already targeted Putin's inner circle with visa and asset freezes and imposed sanctions on a key Russian bank.
US officials said the next round would target "individuals with influence on the Russian economy, such as energy and banking" and could be bolstered if the situation escalated.
EU sources in Brussels said senior diplomats from the 28-member European bloc would also hold talks Monday to consider new sanctions.
An EU diplomat said a list adding 15 people to the 55 Russians and Ukrainians already blacklisted by the EU had already been approved in principle.
- Putin, Obama still talking -
The crisis heightened after Russia refused to accept the legitimacy of Kiev's new pro-EU government, which came to power after four months of street protests forced the ouster of the Kremlin-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Last month, Moscow annexed Ukraine's peninsula of Crimea after deploying troops, sparking international outrage.
While President Barack Obama has ruled out sending US or NATO forces into Ukraine, Washington has begun deploying 600 US troops to bolster NATO's defences in nearby eastern European states.
And Ukraine has stepped up its offensive against insurgents they claim are supported by Moscow, who have seized a string of towns in the east of the country.
Ukrainian army units are besieging Slavyansk with sporadic fighting at checkpoints but authorities have pledged a measured response to avoid civilian casualties.
The insurgents have also conducted their own operations. On Friday, they blew up an army helicopter on the ground with a rocket-propelled grenade, wounding the pilot.
Lavrov has claimed the push against rebels was part of a US plot to "seize" Ukraine for its own "geopolitical ambitions".
But the White House has urged Moscow to "choose a peaceful resolution to the crisis" by implementing the Geneva deal, which calls for "illegal armed groups" to lay down weapons.
Earlier Saturday, Moscow denied reports that Obama and Putin were no longer talking, saying they remain in touch.
After meeting Pope Francis, Yatsenyuk, who warned Friday Moscow was trying to trigger a "third world war", asked Russia to pull back its troops.
"We urge Russia to leave us alone."
© 2014 AFP