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Ukraine presses on against rebels

by ALISON SMALE and ANDREW E. KRAMER, New York Times News Service on May 04, 2014 1:15 AM

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s security forces pressed their assault to try to reclaim the pro-Russian stronghold of Slovyansk on Saturday, even as the rebels freed seven European military observers and the Kremlin cited the deaths of dozens of people in Odessa as proof that Ukraine could no longer protect its citizens.

The Ukrainian troops built on recent advances into Slovyansk’s outskirts, entering the neighboring town of Kramatorsk after firefights with armed rebels. The Interior Ministry said the forces had recaptured the main state security building there and a television tower for the town, allowing for the resumption of Ukrainian television broadcasts that had been replaced by Russian ones.

But even with the military advances, the violence Friday in Odessa, far west of the country’s restive eastern region, was a measure of how far events have spiraled out of the authorities’ control.

An official in the city said 46 people died in street battles between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine groups, but many of the dead were pro-Russia militants who had retreated into a trade union building that was then set on fire. Amid the chaos, it was not immediately clear who had started the blaze, though a report from a pro-Ukraine national newspaper, Ukrainska Pravda, suggested that Ukrainian activists had done nothing to help those inside.

Ihor Borshulyak, the city’s regional prosecutor, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that 144 people had been arrested. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov fired the local police chief Saturday.

Moscow used the violence in Odessa to again denounce the idea of holding nationwide elections in Ukraine on May 25 to select a new president and vote on constitutional reforms.

A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, said any discussion of proceeding with the vote would be “absurd.” The United States and Germany have threatened new sanctions against Russia if it disrupts the elections.

In a diplomatic success, pro-Russia militants freed the European military observers who had been held — four Germans, a Czech, a Dane and a Pole. Their release followed the arrival of a Kremlin envoy, Vladimir P. Lukin.

There were also indications Saturday that the United States and Russia might be willing to try again to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who was on a trip to Africa, called the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, to discuss the escalating violence. Kerry said he and Lavrov discussed “how to find a way forward” and agreed to exchange ideas.

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