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Kerry criticizes Eastern Ukraine protests as ‘contrived pretext’ for Russian force

April 8, 2014 at 6:05 PM EDT
Ukraine
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JUDY WOODRUFF: There was more unrest in Ukraine today, as the government pushed back at pro-Russian supporters in the country’s east.

But, as chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports, the demonstrators still hold control of government buildings in two key cities.

MARGARET WARNER: Riot police surrounded the regional government headquarters in Kharkiv today after Ukrainian security forces late last night ousted scores of pro-Russian separatists.

The protesters, who had declared that eastern region’s independence yesterday, were taken into custody.

Ukraine’s interior minister was in charge.

ARSEN AVAKOV, Interior Minister, Ukraine (through interpreter): Around 70 people were detained, weapons were taken, and fire was extinguished. Right now, the city administration building is under control.

MARGARET WARNER: But armed separatists remain entrenched at the regional government building in Donetsk, also in the east, where the governor told us on our visit three weeks ago that he thought he had the situation in hand.

SERGEI TARUTA, Governor, Donetsk Region (through interpreter): When I arrived, this building was blocked and the Russian flag was flying on the roof. Today, the situation is quite different.

MARGARET WARNER: But, last weekend, pro-Russian protesters stormed the building, barricaded it with tires and barbed wire, and vowed to stay until a vote is held on separating from Ukraine to join Russia, just as Crimea did a month ago.

ALEXEI, Protester (through interpreter): We are here for the sake of our families, for our salaries, for our health, for all those people who have already shed their blood. We will not leave this place until we will make the referendum happen.

MARGARET WARNER: A similar weekend scene played out at the state security building in Luhansk. Authorities said protesters wired the building with explosives and are holding some 60 hostages, a claim the demonstrators denied.

The unrest in the east also stoked tensions at Ukraine’s Parliament in Kiev. A fistfight broke out after the head of the Communist Party blamed Ukrainian nationalists for provoking Russia.

At a Senate hearing in Washington today, Secretary of State John Kerry laid the blame for the unrest squarely on Moscow.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: Russia’s clear and unmistakable involvement in destabilizing and engaging in separatist activities in the east of Ukraine is more than deeply disturbing. No one should be fooled — and believe me, no one is fooled — by what could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention, just as we saw in Crimea. It is clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalysts behind the chaos of the last 24 hours.

MARGARET WARNER: In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flatly rejected the allegation.

SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia (through interpreter): Our American partners are probably trying to analyze the situation, attaching their own habits to others. We are deeply convinced, and nobody has so far challenged this conviction, that the situation cannot be calmed down and changed into national dialogue, if the Ukrainian authorities go on ignoring the interests of the southeastern regions of the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Russian troops remain massed just across Ukraine’s eastern border. That brought a new warning from NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen against further Russian incursion into Ukraine.

ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, Secretary-General, NATO: It would be an historic mistake. It would have grave consequences for our relationship with Russia, and it would further isolate Russia internationally.

MARGARET WARNER: There are plans under way for diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, the U.S., and the European Union to hold talks on the crisis, but no date has been set.