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Violent Gun Battle Shatters Short-Lived Truce in Ukraine

Agreements calling for reduced tensions and promises of a holiday cease-fire do not hold up to realities on the ground

- Jon Queally, staff writer

A brokered Easter weekend truce in Ukraine that followed on an international agreement designed to reduce tensions last week was shattered early Sunday morning when a gun battle in the eastern part of the country resulted in the death of several people.

An armed man stands guard at a barricade in Slavyansk, eastern Ukraine. (Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images) Early details vary on the exact number of people who may have been killed near the city of Slavyansk with Reuters reporting that "at least two" local pro-Russian fighters were dead while other agencies put the number at five or more killed on both sides.

The deal reached in Geneva on Thursday by top diplomats from the U.S., Russia, the EU, and Ukraine interim government in Kiev called for pro-Russian separatists who have seized government buildings and built barricades in numerous eastern Ukraine cities to lay down their arms and return home. On Friday, however, most of the protesters said they would continue to maintain their encampments until they were granted the referendums central to their demands.

According to the Guardian:

Three pro-Russian militants were reported killed, along with two of the assailants, whose identity has not been ascertained. A Reuters cameraman reported that he saw the bodies of two local fighters.

Slavyansk is one of several towns and cities that have been taken over by pro-Russian units of men, whose allegiance is clear but whose provenance remains a mystery. Under a deal signed in Geneva on Thursday by the EU, Russia, Ukraine and the US, the units were supposed to retire, but they have thus far shown no signs of desisting.

A team of mediators is heading to eastern Ukraine to try to persuade the pro-Russian groups to disband, but it appears to be facing an unenviable challenge. Attempts by the Guardian to enter Slavyansk were brusquely repelled by armed men. The situation for non-Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine has become increasingly precarious in recent days.

Reuters adds:

After the deaths, Russia questioned whether Ukraine's Western-backed government was complying with the agreement, brokered last week in Geneva, to end a crisis that has made Russia's ties with the West more fraught than at any time since the Cold War.

The separatists said gunmen from Ukraine's Right Sector nationalist group had attacked them. The Right Sector denied any role, saying Russian special forces were behind the clash.

Failure of the Geneva agreement could bring more bloodshed in eastern Ukraine, but may also prompt the United States early next week to impose tougher sanctions on the Kremlin - with far-reaching potential consequences for many economies and for importers of Russian energy.

The deal signed in Geneva last week by the European Union, Russia, Ukraine and the United States agreed that illegal armed groups would go home.

So far, the pro-Russian militants have shown no signs of budging, though there was some hope of progress after Kiev said it would not move against the separatists over Easter, and international mediators headed to eastern Ukraine to try to persuade them to disarm.

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