Poroshenko faces new security crisis in western Ukraine

13th July 2015, Comments 0 comments

President Petro Poroshenko confronted a fresh crisis Monday as a deadly standoff continued between interior ministry units and armed Ukrainian ultranationalists in a western enclave near Hungary.

The EU-backed leader planned to convene his "military cabinet" of top generals Monday to try and diffuse tensions between two forces vital to his bid to stamp out a separatist insurgency 1,000 kilometres (more than 600 miles) away in eastern Ukraine.

The Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) nationalists played a small but instrumental role in three months of pro-European protests that eventually toppled the Russian-backed leadership in February 2014.

They then formed the heart of some of the best-equipped -- and allegedly most ruthless -- units to wage war against pro-Russian militias that overran parts of Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland in the wake of the Kiev revolution.

Interior ministry battalions are also at the forefront of the 15-month battle against the separatist fighters that has claimed more than 6,500 lives.

But mistrust between volunteer units and Ukraine's armed forces has been building as Poroshenko tries to follow through on a February peace deal whose terms -- including partial self-rule for the insurgents -- are anathema to the nationalists.

Pravy Sektor members also cast themselves as Robin Hood figures who defend the public against the corruption that has ravaged Ukraine's political establishment and police since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.

The weekend battles were sparked by Pravy Sektor's self-proclaimed attempt to prevent Hungary and Slovakia from being flooded with any more contraband cigarettes that have already enriched local Ukrainian politicians and their security overlords.

Pravy Sektor reported the death of two of its members in a shootout with what appeared to be a mixture of security personnel and armed local thugs.

The interior ministry -- which backed up troops with armoured personnel carriers and military trucks -- said one civilian had also died in circumstances that were unclear.

The battle broke out after a dozen or so Pravy Sektor members came to what was meant to be a round of negotiations equipped with grenade launchers and machine guns.

Both sides accuse the other of being the first to open fire. The Pravy Sektor groups claims to have slipped through a security cordon and established new positions in the surrounding woods.

- 'Order through force' -

Pravy Sektor leader Dmytro Yarosh -- a bombastic parliament member who was wounded in eastern Ukraine clashes and whom Moscow believes is associated with neo-Nazis -- pleaded for calm.

"We are working with the Ukrainian Security Service in order to stabilise the situations," he wrote Monday on Facebook.

The gun battle erupted in Zakarpattia, a region of 1.3 million people that is split from the rest of Ukraine by the Carpathian Mountains and has ancient cultural ties to Hungary.

The rural province developed a history of voting for parties backed by Russia because many of its residents also mistrust the Ukrainian nationalists.

Many Zakarpattia residents carry Hungarian passports and have few political links to either Moscow or Kiev.

The Ukrainian government's near silence on the crisis was broken Monday when Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk appeared to come out on Pravy Sektor's side.

Yatsenyuk has issued orders "to dismiss all Zakarpattia customs service employees," his office said in a statement.

"In addition, Arseniy Yatsenyuk instructed the interior ministry to conduct a fact-finding inquiry into contraband and abuse of power by the Zakarpattian customs service."

But a senior Ukrainian security service source told AFP that Pravy Sektor was far less innocent than it claimed.

Pravy Sektor "itself is trying to win a piece of the contraband business," the security source said.

"The problem for Ukraine is that there are a lot of armed people who view themselves as heroes and try to establish their brand of order through force," said the source.

"Something like this was bound to happen -- and it did."

© 2015 AFP

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