A deadly shootout erupted early Sunday at a roadblock outside an eastern Ukrainian town held by pro-Russian separatists, leading to a sharp escalation in their conflict with Kiev and prompting the local rebel-installed mayor to ask Moscow to send in troops.
The incident, near the city of Slovyansk, represented the first reported bloodshed in the region since Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and the European Union signed a joint agreement on Thursday in Geneva to try to stabilize the crisis in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian militants have taken control of 10 cities. Following the agreement, Ukraine said it would halt a military operation to regain control of the region over the Easter holiday.
Russia and Ukraine swiftly accused each other of provoking the fatal exchange of gunfire. Ukraine’s interior ministry said one person was killed and three were wounded in a gunbattle just north of Slovyansk around 3 a.m. between two groups but gave no further details.
Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, later blamed the militants for “terrorizing the city’s population,” calling the incident “a cynical provocation.”
“It’s been established that there was no organization in Slovyansk other than the militants and criminal representatives themselves, which are also supported by armed officers from Russia’s military intelligence,” the SBU said in a statement.
Russian news agencies, citing officials with the pro-Russian militia that seized control of the city last weekend, reported that up to five people had been killed, three who were guarding the checkpoint and two who had opened fire from inside a pair of vehicles as they approached the roadblock. Photos from the scene showed two vehicles bearing Ukrainian license plates that appeared entirely gutted by fire.
A report on Russia’s state-run news channel Rossiya 24, citing no source, stated that a large quantity of arms—including explosives, smoke bombs, U.S.-made night-vision goggles and aerial maps of the region were found inside the cars. The report also said that materials found in the car were linked to a small Ukrainian ultranationalist group, Pravy Sektor, which has repeatedly been held up by Russia as a sign that Ukraine has been overrun by armed fascists who are threatening the rights of ethnic Russians. Little evidence of such threats, however, has ever emerged.
Pravy Sektor said it had nothing to do with the incident, calling the allegation an attempt “to cause fear of Pravy Sektor among residents of Eastern Ukraine.” In a statement, Pravy Sektor accused Russian security services and media of defamation, saying all its activities were legal.
The Russian TV report prompted a statement from the Russian foreign ministry repeating Rossiya 24’s details of what was found in the cars and blaming the new government in Kiev of failing to rein in and disarm “nationalists and extremists.”
“It is astonishing that this tragedy happened after the signing of the April 17th Geneva declaration…which calls for refraining from all acts of violence, intimidation and provocation,” the statement said. “Russia insists that Ukraine sticks to its commitments to de-escalate the situation in the southeast.”
Viktoria Syumar, deputy head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, called reports blaming Pravy Sektor “propaganda” intended to support the argument that Ukraine has plunged into civil war to justify a possible Russian invasion in the future. Ukraine’s interior ministry said in a statement that after Slovyansk was seized by “armed terrorists,” Ukraine’s law-enforcement agencies have no control of the situation in the city. “Because of the presence of foreign saboteurs and illegal armed formations, and because of the uncontrolled circulation of firearms, Slovyansk today is the most dangerous place in Ukraine,” it said.
Russia has moved tens of thousands of troops close to the Ukrainian border and has repeatedly said it reserves the right to defend the interests of ethnic Russians living in eastern Ukraine.
On Friday, pro-Russian militants refused to vacate government buildings they have occupied as the Geneva agreement calls for them to do, undermining the effectiveness of the deal at the outset.