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Ukraine launches offensive in east, vows to rid country of 'parasites'
New government offensive against rebels follows end of cease-fire; Putin warns that he will protect ethnic Russians
July 1, 20147:36AM ET
Ukrainian forces struck at separatist positions in the country’s restive east Tuesday, just hours after President Petro Poroshenko ended an uneasy cease-fire in the region and vowed to rid the area of “parasites.”
The new offensive against pro-Moscow rebels saw pro-Kiev forces attack rebel bases and checkpoints “from the air and land,” the defense ministry said. Casualty figures were not immediately available.
It came as Russian President Vladimir Putin again sought to blame Western governments for the ongoing crisis, accusing the West of trying to destabilize the whole region. He also reiterated a vow to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
The resumption of full-scale fighting, which followed a cease-fire punctuated by sporadic violence, came as Poroshenko announced in a statement that Ukrainian forces "will attack and will free our country."
The fragile laying down of arms expired Monday night. The idea had been to give rebels a chance to disarm in order to start a broader peace process including an amnesty and new elections. But rebels did not disarm, and the cease-fire was continually violated.
Additionally, separatists did not comply with Poroshenko's latest push to get them to turn over key border crossings with Russia and permit international monitoring of the cease-fire.
"The unique chance to put the peace plan into practice was not realized," Poroshenko said in a speech to the nation. "This happened because of the criminal actions of the fighters."
In a statement on Facebook he added that Ukraine needed to unite to “free our land from dirt and parasites.”
The Tuesday offensive saw gunfire break out in the center of Donetsk, the capital of one of the two regions that pro-Russian insurgents have declared independent in eastern Ukraine.
Russia warned the authorities in Kiev that they would be held responsible for the ongoing military operation against separatists after refusing to extend the unilateral cease-fire.
"One will have to answer for the crimes against peaceful civilians," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. "We demand that Ukrainian authorities stop shooting at their own country's peaceful cities and villages and return to the real and not pretend cease-fire to save people's lives."
Putin lashes out
Putin on Tuesday said Russia would continue to protect all ethnic Russians abroad, by means of political, economic and humanitarian measures.
He also accused the West of trying to destabilize the whole region through the Ukraine crisis, adding that “everyone in Europe” needed to make sure that the scenarios playing out in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Ukraine do not “become contagious” in the region.
Fighting in Ukraine has cost the lives of more than 400 people since April, according to estimates.
Poroshenko's decision not to renew the cease-fire for a second time followed four-way talks Monday with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. He issued a statement after the talks ended, saying the key conditions needed to continue the cease-fire had not been met.
Poroshenko added that he made the decision after a meeting of the country’s national security council. "After discussion of the situation, I, as commander in chief, took the decision not to continue the unilateral cease-fire."
'Our answer to terrorists'
“Ending the cease-fire, this is our answer to terrorists, armed insurgents and looters, to all who mock the peaceful population, who are paralyzing the economy of the region ... who are depriving people of a normal, peaceful life,” Poroshenko said in his speech.
Tension between Russia and Ukraine escalated in February when protests by people who wanted closer ties with the European Union drove pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych from office. Russia called the events an illegal coup and annexed Ukraine's Crimea region, saying it was protecting the rights of people there who speak Russian as their main language.
The insurrection in Ukraine’s eastern regions near the Russian border started soon after, with separatists occupying buildings and declaring independence.
Poroshenko said he meant for a cease-fire to be followed by an amnesty for fighters who had not committed serious crimes, and political concessions such as early local and regional elections, protections for Russian speakers and, in the longer term, changes to the constitution to decentralize government.
The end of the cease-fire raises the question of what action the Ukrainian military can take. It has so far been unable to dislodge rebels occupying the city of Slovyansk or to retake control of three key border crossings with Russia. At one point, the rebels shot down a government military transport, killing 49 service members.