Pro-Russian rebels clash with government forces across eastern Ukraine

Fighting breaks out as Moscow, charged with encouraging rebels, launches military exercise

Pro-Russia militants shoot from a roof of a residential building at borderguards defending the Federal Border Headquarters building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk on June 2, 2014.
Sergey Gapon / AFP / Getty Images

Pro-Russian rebels said an airstrike on a government building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk on Monday left at least five people dead, as they continued to clash with the government in Kiev.

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday condemned the attack, calling it a crime by the Kiev government against Ukraine.

"The authorities in Kiev have committed another crime against their own people," a statement on the ministry's website said. "Everything that has taken place [there] indicates the downright unwillingness of the Kiev authorities to move towards seeking ways for national accord in the country."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called an emergency meeting of the United Nations' Security Council hours after the attack.

Lavrov said Moscow wants Security Council action to end weeks of violence in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine between government troops and pro-Russian rebels, a move immediately denounced by the United States as "hypocritical."

A draft resolution put forth by Russia "urges the parties to commit themselves to a sustainable cease-fire" and demands "that the parties establish humanitarian corridors" so that aid can be delivered and civilians who wish to leave can do so safely.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki countered that Russia was being "hypocritical" by calling for a ceasefire and help for civilians to leave combat zones safely while "doing nothing to stop" Ukrainian rebels from attacking targets in the east and holding international monitoring teams hostage.

"So if they're going to call for ...reduction in tension and a de-escalation, it would be more effective for them to end those activities," Psaki told reporters in Washington.

Lavrov told a news conference that Western nations had assured Russia the situation in Ukraine would improve after a May 25 presidential election but that "everything is happening in exactly the opposite way."

The airstrike followed a fierce battle at a Ukrainian border post, which hundreds of pro-Russian rebels using automatic weapons and grenade launchers stormed earlier in the day.

Security sources said a force of rebels had occupied the upper floors of a nearby apartment block and were shooting into the border post on the southern edge of Luhansk, a city very close to the border with Russia.

Serhiy Astakhov, spokesman for the border guard service, told The Associated Press that a preliminary assessment indicated that five rebels were killed and eight injured in the attack on the post. He also said seven servicemen were injured, three seriously.

Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has said police and security forces are effectively "helpless" against rebels in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But President-elect Petro Poroshenko has promised to crush the rebels, whom he has called “terrorists.” Poroshenko will be inaugurated on June 7.

Though there appeared to be a lull in the fighting around 1:00 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET) Monday, it was unclear whether the battle had ended or the rebels were preparing to mount another attack. There was no clear evidence of the Ukrainian troops' air dispatch to the region.

One fighter in uniform, who gave his name as Vlad Sevastopolsky, told the AP that pro-Russian militants have surrounded the base but offered Ukrainian troops a safe corridor out, as long as they surrender their weapons.

Vladislav Seleznyov, press secretary for Ukraine's operation against the rebels in the east, described the base as an important coordinating node for border guards across the province and said the attack may have been an attempt to disrupt communications.

Seleznyov also said there was another rebel attack Monday on a government checkpoint in Slovyansk, a city in the Donetsk region that has been a pro-Russian stronghold. He said rebels had set mines in a number of Slovyansk power plants, which he claimed would be detonated if the government were to move on the city. 

Russian military exercise

The latest bout of violence broke out as Russia’s Defense Ministry revealed it had begun a military exercise involving the launch of high-precision missiles.

In a statement Monday, the ministry said the exercise would continue through Thursday and involve the deployment of Iskander surface-to-surface missiles. Iskander missiles are capable of hitting targets 175 miles away.

The exercise will also involve long-range bombers firing cruise missiles at land targets, the ministry said. However, it did not specify where the exercise will take place.

Ukraine's eastern region has been riven by a separatist armed rebellion for the past two months, which Kiev says Russia is encouraging. Ukrainian authorities allege that armed fighters from Russia and the Caucasus region are fighting alongside rebels poised against Kiev.

The Ukrainian army has launched an "anti-terrorist" operation to try to crush the rebellions in the east.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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