Thursday, 17 July 2014
SNIZHNE, Ukraine -- An airstrike in eastern Ukraine sent an apartment building crumpling to the ground Tuesday, killing at least 11 people and adding to the steadily mounting civilian death toll from the fighting between government forces and pro-Russian insurgents. Rebels pinned the attack on the Ukrainian air force. The government swiftly denied blame but was not immediately able to offer an alternative explanation. The bombing in the rebel-held town of Snizhne demonstrated how airstrikes and heavy rocket fire are becoming increasingly common as the conflict drags into its fourth month. The attack comes one day after a Ukrainian military transport plane was shot down in disputed circumstances. The devastation in Snizhne bore signs of a strike by several missiles and left only a mountain of smoking debris. The four-story apartment block appeared to have been hit in two separate spots, causing the collapse of several tiers. A nearby house was also destroyed. Resident Igor Chernetsov lost his wife in the attack. "I heard an explosion, and suddenly I was thrown out of the apartment, out of the fourth floor," said Chernetsov, his head swathed in a bandage. "I woke up covered in dust and had no idea what had happened." Health officials in the Donetsk region, which includes Snizhne, provided the number of dead. Rescue workers pulled a small child with broken legs alive from the rubble as grieving residents sifted for belongings. An Associated Press reporter counted six large impact craters. Dmitry Tymchuk, a military analyst who coordinates closely with Ukraine's Defense Ministry, said that since rebels are unlikely to have any planes capable of conducting the bombing, there could only be one explanation. "Only Russian aviation could have performed the airstrike on Snizhne," he wrote on his Facebook account. The Defense Ministry stopped short of that claim but insisted the bombing could not have been carried out by the air force as none of its planes were on sorties at the time of the strike. Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko called the incident a "cynical and bloody provocation" aimed at discrediting the armed forces. Sergei, a rebel commander at the scene who declined to give his surname, said locals bore witness to Ukrainian involvement. "Many local citizens saw the plane that dropped the bomb — it had Ukrainian markings," he said. "Why Ukraine would bomb its own territory is harder for me to say." No reliable official recent death toll has been produced, but hundreds of civilians are believed to have been killed so far in the conflict. Authorities said Tuesday that 258 servicemen have been killed in fighting and 922 injured. Representatives for the separatist Luhansk People's Republic said that 12 more civilians were killed Monday evening in the eastern city of Luhansk following rocket attacks and airstrikes. It was not immediately possible to verify those claims. On Monday, Ukraine said one of its military transport planes carrying eight people was shot down by a missile fired from Russian territory. Security Service chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko said he had "unconditional evidence" that Russia was involved in downing the craft, Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported Tuesday. Rebels said they shot the plane down. Defense Ministry representatives initially suggested all those on the plane had survived and been accounted for. The ministry updated its account to specify that while four on the plane were evacuated, another two were taken captive by rebels and that the whereabouts of two more are unknown. On Tuesday, the Moscow-based LifeNews online television channel broadcast the questioning by rebels of a man identified as a pilot from the downed Antonov-26. LifeNews quoted a rebel militiaman Alexander Gureyev as saying the pilot was allowed to call his family. "Most likely, we will exchange him for one of our militias in captivity. Nobody intended or intends to shoot him. Let his relatives not worry," Gureyev was quoted as saying. In the last two weeks, the government has halved the territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russia separatists, who have been forced back into the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk. Many in the armed insurgency are known to be Russian nationals, but Moscow says they are simply citizens who went to fight in Ukraine on their own. Russia has denied it is helping to fuel the unrest in Ukraine and has in turn accused Kiev-commanded forces of shelling a border town inside Russia, killing one person. Ukraine denies firing shells onto foreign soil. A delegation of international military attaches and reporters visited the site of the shelling Tuesday in Donetsk in what a senior Russian Defense Ministry official termed an "act of good will." Officials showed a residential building damaged by rocket fire and a series of craters next to a border crossing.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- Tamara Popova and her fellow orphans are adamant: They don't want to go to Russia. The separatist gunmen running this eastern Ukrainian city aren't asking. They're giving orders. As fighting between insurgent and government troops closes in on the city, the 130 or so children living at Donetsk Orphanage No. 1 find themselves in the middle of a tug of war. The insurgents say the children will be safer in Russia. Ukraine wants to move them to facilities in government-held territory, at least until the fighting dies own. It says taking them outside the country would be tantamount to a kidnapping. "Normal people would ask our opinion," the 16-year-old Popova said, as other orphans nodded in agreement. "We told them that this was against the law, that we have brothers and sisters here. But then they started to swear." The orphanage has children from age 7 into their late teens. It's clean and well-ordered. Pictures of stars from the local Shaktyar Donetsk soccer team hang in one room. Another is decorated with a fairytale tableau. Girls' bedrooms are decked in pink wallpaper and hung with floral pattern curtains. It's an image of peace undermined by the menace of violence. Men bearing automatic rifles arrived one recent day to lay down the law about moving to Russia, terrifying everybody. Yelena Im, 16, scoffed at insurgent claims they have the orphans' best interests at heart. "If they act like that when they want to take us - everybody was crying - then I don't know how they will treat us there," Im said. "They took away our passports. We told them to give us back our documents, that we need them. What right do they have to take them? "But they don't answer. They just turn around and start screaming again." Both sides appear to be using the orphans for propaganda. "Under Ukrainian law, the actions of these scoundrels should be qualified as a criminal offense," Ukraine's foreign ministry said in a statement. "They are children of the Donetsk Republic," said Roman Lyagin, the self-appointed social affairs minister of the separatist government. "We deem Ukraine an enemy. We are not Ukraine, so we evacuate children to secure places. In this case, we believe this to be the Russian Federation." Russia, meanwhile, touts the large numbers of child refugees heading toward Russia as proof that Ukraine can't take care of them. Pavel Astakhov, Russia's children's rights ombudsman, said Sunday there were 22,000 Ukrainian child refugees in Russia. He urged Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to "defend the most defenseless, the orphans of Ukraine. "Allow them to leave for Russia!" The orphans themselves remain caught in the middle. Orphanage director Olga Volkova said the insurgents made clear they must do as they are told. "We were told that if we don't comply, then this will be considered sabotage, because during wartime we must comply with orders," she said. "And if we don't, then we will be talked to in a different way."
KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine and Russia traded increasingly bitter accusations of cross-border hostilities on Tuesday, deepening a shadowy war of real attacks or orchestrated sabotage that increasingly threatens to draw the two countries into direct conflict. On Tuesday, Ukrainian military officials said they suspected Russia of carrying out an airstrike that destroyed a four-story apartment building in the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, about 12 miles from border, killing at least 11 civilians. Pro-Russian separatists, in turn, said the Ukrainian military had carried out the bombing. The announcement by Ukraine’s general prosecutor’s office that it was collecting evidence of a Russian role in the airstrike came a day after the government in Kiev said it believed Russia was responsible for the downing of a military transport plane in Luhansk. A day before that, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned of potentially “irreversible consequences” after one man was killed and two other people were wounded when mortar fire hit the town of Donetsk on the Russian side of the border. Officially, the Kremlin has denied arming, financing or directing the insurrection in eastern Ukraine, but its active support of the rebellion has been openly acknowledged in recent days. Separatist leaders have complained about the low quality and advanced age of the weapons provided by Russia and a lack of more proactive assistance as they have come under heavier attack by the Ukrainian military. On Tuesday, apparent new evidence of Russian military aid appeared on the roads of eastern Ukraine as convoys of tanks and smaller vehicles drove west through rebel-controlled territory toward Donetsk. Shortly after 10 a.m., a column of eight tanks, four large armored personnel carriers, and an assortment of smaller civilian cars and minivans wound its way through the small town of Vuglegirsk. Rebels reclined on the top of the tanks, as if on couches. A kiosk owner watched as they passed. “I’m just sick of it all,” said the owner, who would give only her first name, Larisa, out of concern for her safety. She saved her harshest words for Ukraine’s government. “They are killing their own people,” she said. “We won’t forgive them that.” A half-hour later, a column of four tanks rolled down the same road, past a brilliant field of sunflowers. Behind were trucks and civilian cars, including a new-looking Volkswagen minivan, with a blue light on top. The continued supply of arms and equipment has riled officials in Kiev, including President Petro O. Poroshenko, who has urged the West to impose more painful economic sanctions against Russia. Anatoliy Matios, a deputy general prosecutor, said at a news conference in Kiev that the Ukrainian government intended to show evidence of Russia’s involvement in the bombing of the residential building in Snizhne.“It will be proven according to international standards that a neighboring state used military equipment and ammunition,” Mr. Matios said. While separatists blamed the government for the airstrike, Ukrainian officials insisted that all military flights had been suspended on Monday after the downing of the military transport plane in a rocket attack. Russia on Tuesday denied that the rocket that destroyed the plane had been fired from its side of the border. As the cross-border recriminations added new animosity to the fight, the death toll continued to mount from the separatist insurrection in eastern Ukraine and the Ukrainian military’s effort to quash the rebellion. At least six more Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 13 wounded in overnight fighting throughout the east, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said at a news briefing on Tuesday. The self-declared separatist Luhansk People’s Republic said that 15 civilians had been killed and more than 60 wounded in bombardments and other fighting throughout the region. That did not include the 11 civilians killed in the airstrike in Snizhne. Mr. Lysenko called the attack in Snizhne “a cynical and bloody provocation in order to discredit the Ukrainian military.” Ukrainian officials have said that the downed cargo plane was flying at a high-enough altitude that destroying it required a sophisticated surface-to-air missile provided by Russia. They also said it appeared that the missile had been fired from the Russian side of the border. Russia denied that accusation on Tuesday, saying that the plane was shot down too far from the border to have involved a Russian missile. A senior Western official, who declined to be identified because he was discussing intelligence reports, said that the information on the downing of the Ukrainian plane was inconclusive. The official said that the initial conclusion of some government analysts was that the aircraft had probably been destroyed by a Russian surface-to-air missile and not a shoulder-fired antiaircraft system. The official also said that the missile had probably been fired from the Russian side of the border, an assertion that was impossible to verify. Western officials have generally been quick to support the Ukrainian version of events, and have repeatedly chastised the Kremlin for not doing enough to stop the flow of weapons and fighters across the border. On Monday, the White House summoned European Union ambassadors to push for restrictions on the Russian financial sector and to show them intelligence documenting Russian support for separatists, Bloomberg News reported. European Union leaders are scheduled to meet Wednesday to consider action. If European allies do not go along, American officials said Mr. Obama might decide to go ahead with sanctions on his own, an approach he has tried to avoid for fear of allowing Russia to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe.
SLAVYANSK, Ukraine -- "Run for cover, everybody; get the hell out of here, on the double!" the leader of the commando unit shouted over his shoulder to the men behind him, his voice echoing eerily in the pitch-black basement. "It is a booby-trap. Watch your step for more wires as you go!" Panting, swearing, stumbling, falling and rattling with all kinds of firearms, the other fighters rushed to hide behind walls of adjacent rooms, the beams of their flashlights making herky-jerky patterns in the darkness. As the squad's explosives expert carefully cut the tiny strings connecting the booby trap inside a Russian army ammo box, Vadim Lisnichuk, the leader of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry unit, gently lifted the lid to find a neatly packed hand grenade. "One more gift from our big brother up north," he joked, sweating profusely as the device planted by pro-Russia separatists was being disarmed. Lisnichuk hasn't always been a respected combat leader. A few months ago, the 36-year-old had an advertising career in the city of Chernivtsi in western Ukraine. Then he joined the protests in Kiev's Independence Square, popularly called Maidan, that brought down the government of President Viktor Yanukovich. "Maidan was a kind of a spiritual festival held on another planet," Lisnichuk said. "It helped us tear up our puppet strings and feel the taste of real freedom for the first time." Armed with sticks, Molotov cocktails and homemade shields, he and thousands of other protesters fought riot police equipped with truncheons, stun grenades and high-caliber rifles in the bloody battlefield that was Maidan. Now Lisnichuk has joined forces with the same riot police who once opposed him, becoming unlikely comrades in arms against a common enemy: the separatists who until recently made this eastern town their stronghold in their bid to break away from Ukraine and join Russia. "Little did I know back then that it would end like this," Lisnichuk said. "But now my weapon is not a stick but a sniper's rifle and my brothers in arms are not just a motley crew of freedom lovers. We are soldiers now and we will defend our land." For three months, Lisnichuk and his men in the special forces unit had been trying to dislodge the separatists, who had set up positions in apartments and backyards across Slavyansk, he said. During that time, 258 Ukrainian servicemen were killed, officials said Tuesday. Finally, more than a thousand insurgents and Russian mercenaries retreated from the city this month, leaving most of their military hardware behind as Ukrainian national guard forces closed in, Lisnichuk said, as he and his men were having a smoke outside amid piles of crushed glass and other debris left by the militants' hasty exit. Most of the city's residents initially supported the separatists, hoping that Russia might annex eastern Ukraine as it did the Crimean peninsula in March. As Lisnichuk and his team did mopping-up operations, the Russian television First Channel news program carried a gory account by an "eyewitness" about Ukrainian troops crucifying a 3-year-old boy in front of his mother in Slavyansk's central square. "At first we were afraid to come out and meet our army boys when they came because the Russian television and the [pro-Russia] gunmen down here had warned us that security forces from Kiev would slaughter all the civilian population in town once they came," said one middle-aged woman, who refused to give her name for fear of being targeted by the separatists. The Ukrainian forces also had to overcome distrust from within. As heavy fighting was rolling away from Slavyansk and a national guard battalion was preparing to move toward the separatist-held regional capital, Donetsk, one of the soldiers sat on top of a small hill overlooking a golden landscape of endless fields of sunflowers surrounding the base. Ivan Datsko, 30, a small-time trader from the western city of Lviv who had fought in Maidan, recalled the carnage at the hands of riot police snipers on March 20 in the square that left about 100 protesters dead. Several police officers were also killed that day, the worst violence of Yanukovich's rule. "I will never forget how I crawled up along Institutskaya Street pulling the lifeless body of my friend shot by a sniper bullet," Datsko said. "It was not a battle, as we didn't have weapons; it was an execution as bullets came from the ranks of the riot police up the road." Soon after Yanukovich fled for Russia at the end of February, pro-Russia armed groups began to seize cities and towns here in the eastern Donbass area, a confrontation that soon unfolded into a real war in the region. Now Datsko is a member of the national guard, which makes up the bulk of the Ukrainian government forces enforcing law and order in eastern Ukraine. "At first we were very suspicious of the riot policemen in our forces, as they seemed to be resentful toward us," Datsko said. But his baptism by fire against the pro-Russia insurgents changed all that. One day back in May during heavy fighting, Datsko crawled once again across a battlefield to help another injured fellow fighter — this time a former riot policeman — as another one of his former Kiev opponents emptied his gun in cover fire for Datsko, he recalled. "A few days later, our helicopter was shot down near Slavyansk, killing our general and several former riot policemen who were on board with him," Datsko said. "That night we — former Maidan fighters and former policemen — sat together, drank some vodka to the memory of fallen comrades, embraced and swore to each other that we will avenge their deaths. "And all the previous scores and animosity forever became a thing of the past between us." Not everybody is euphoric about the newly formed brotherhood in arms of eastern Ukraine. "It took me years to get military training, and these guys became soldiers overnight," said national guard Senior Lt. Pavel Fesenko, a former riot police officer. "We were protecting law and order in Independence Square, and these guys were violating it, throwing Molotov cocktails at us, injuring and killing my comrades," he said. "I will never trust them not to do some outrageous things again sometime and expose us, the professional soldiers, to unnecessary risks." But another member of the riot police expressed admiration for the new soldiers. "These Maidan guys may be unruly and over-emotional sometimes, but when it comes to business they have no fear. They are born soldiers," national guard company commander Senior Lt. Serhiy Kovalenko said. "They are not yet properly trained and they need more experience. But if we can teach them a few tricks of the trade they can teach many of us a few things about patriotism. "I know that I am OK if a former Maidan guy is watching my back in battle, and that is the main thing," he said. "We are in one boat now." As Kovalenko spoke, his national guard base near Slavyansk was swarming with activity as the soldiers were preparing to pull out. Soldiers and officers, most of them shirtless, were reassembling and cleaning their firearms, brushing their boots, shaving their faces and heads. A passing senior officer heard the men roaring with laughter over one soldier's off-color joke. "Good to hear the troops in high spirits," he said as he made his way through the grounds. "Now I know we are in shape for more fighting!" The day before, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov visited the national guard base. He praised the valor of its soldiers, awarded a few of them medals and brought 400 new NATO helmets and ballistic vests with him in a bus. He said thousands more helmets and vests would be coming. As Avakov was making his speech, former Maidan fighters and former riot policemen stood shoulder to shoulder in the parade grounds. "The real goals and real values they face now change their vision of the world imposed by the former regime," Avakov said after the ceremony. "What separated them back then was the values of a revolution and the sense of duty; what unites them now is Ukraine's independence."
KIEV, Ukraine -- Fighting raged in Ukraine's east on Wednesday when separatists tried to break through the lines of government forces near the border with Russia and a tentative step towards agreeing conditions for a ceasefire failed. Eleven more Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the space of 24 hours while hundreds of bodies of rebels were found in shallow graves in a former separatist stronghold, the army said. Fighting has escalated sharply since Friday with the downing of a Ukrainian military transport plane and the deaths of civilians in air and artillery attacks on residential areas on both sides of the border, which Russia and Ukraine have blamed on each other. Accusations of direct Russian involvement in the three and a half month conflict, in which hundreds have died, is being pushed hard by Ukraine to persuade the United States and its European allies to impose tougher sanctions on Russia. In telephone conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, late on Tuesday, President Petro Poroshenko again set out evidence of fighters crossing into Ukraine from Russia with heavy military equipment, his website said. Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk leveled harsh criticism at Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Everything which is happening in Ukraine has been planned by Russia since 2004. Putin has a clear plan and that is to destroy Ukraine and establish his influence over post-Soviet space," he said in a public speech carried by his website. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's defense and security council, told journalists that separatists had kept up attacks overnight on government positions along the border. Eleven more Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the space of 24 hours while hundreds of bodies of rebels were found in shallow graves in a former separatist stronghold, the army said. Fighting has escalated sharply since Friday with the downing of a Ukrainian military transport plane and the deaths of civilians in air and artillery attacks on residential areas on both sides of the border, which Russia and Ukraine have blamed on each other. Accusations of direct Russian involvement in the three and a half month conflict, in which hundreds have died, is being pushed hard by Ukraine to persuade the United States and its European allies to impose tougher sanctions on Russia. In telephone conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, late on Tuesday, President Petro Poroshenko again set out evidence of fighters crossing into Ukraine from Russia with heavy military equipment, his website said. Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk leveled harsh criticism at Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Everything which is happening in Ukraine has been planned by Russia since 2004. Putin has a clear plan and that is to destroy Ukraine and establish his influence over post-Soviet space," he said in a public speech carried by his website. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's defense and security council, told journalists that separatists had kept up attacks overnight on government positions along the border. But he said, after being temporarily grounded on Tuesday after the downing of an An-26 transporter, Ukrainian warplanes had been given the go-ahead to resume flights over the east. "They...are already supporting our ground forces in those regions where the toughest clashes are going on," he said. The new casualty figures would appear to bring to nearly 270 the number of Ukrainian servicemen killed since the government launched an "anti-terrorist" operation in April to crush the rebels. Hundreds of civilians and rebels have also been killed. Lysenko said that in Slavyansk, a former rebel stronghold re-taken by government forces, "hundreds of bodies of...(rebel) fighters" had been found under a light covering of earth. "Some of these graves have been mined by the terrorists." Violence erupted in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east in April after a pro-Europe revolt in Kiev that ousted a Moscow-backed president and led to Russia's annexation of Crimea, causing the biggest Russia-West crisis since the Cold War. A 'contact group' of officials from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said it tried on Tuesday to re-activate peace talks - but a planned video link-up with separatists never materialized. "In the opinion of the contact group, this indicates a lack of willingness on the side of separatists to engage in substantive talks on a mutually agreed ceasefire," it said in a statement. It urged separatists to return to talks immediately. Ukraine has accused Russia repeatedly of turning a blind eye to Russian fighters crossing the long, shared border to team up with rebels, often with Russian weapons and military equipment. Moscow denies this. In an increasing war of words and mutual recrimination, Moscow accused Ukrainian forces of firing a shell across the border last Sunday, killing a Russian man in a Russian border town. Kiev denies its forces were to blame and says the shell was the work of rebels out to discredit government forces. Eleven people were said by local health authorities to have been killed in an air strike at the Ukrainian town of Snizhne, 20 km (12 miles) from the border. Kiev denied rebel charges that the strike had been carried out by a Ukrainian warplane and said it was the work of an "unknown" plane - apparently an accusation against Russia, since the rebels have not used aircraft in the conflict. Kiev has also said that a missile that brought down the An-26 military transporter was probably fired from Russian territory. Kiev says it has found four survivors from the eight people who were on board, that two others are being held by rebels, and that it does not know the fate of the remaining two. Since losing Slavyansk, rebels has been pushed back to the main industrial city of Donetsk though they also remain in control of the border town of Luhansk.
BERDYANSK, Ukraine -- A celebrated Ukrainian bomber pilot who faces murder charges in Moscow has become a new, high-profile flash point between Ukraine and Russia as they clash over deadly fighting along their border. First Lt. Nadiya Savchenko, 33, Ukraine's first female military pilot, is accused of complicity in the June 17 killing of two Russian journalists during a mortar attack on a checkpoint manned by pro-Russian separatists outside Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. She was captured the next day by the separatists and surfaced this month in Voronezh, southwestern Russia, where she is to go on trial. The case is stoking new tension between Ukraine and Russia because Ukraine contends Savchenko was taken to Russia against her will. Adding to the drama is her recent choice of a defense counsel: a flamboyant attorney who was part of a legal team that enlisted Madonna, Sting and other celebrities to support the Russian punk-rock protest band Pussy Riot against charges of hooliganism. Russian lawyer Mark Feigin withdrew from the Pussy Riot case before its conclusion amid accusations that he was using it for publicity. Ultimately three members of the group were given prison sentences, but the sentence of one was suspended and the others received two-year terms, short of the seven-years maximum they faced. Even before the Savchenko case, relations between the two nations have been worsening, as Ukraine accuses Moscow of supporting the rebellion by separatists in the east, and Russia accuses Kiev's military forces of targeting innocent ethnic Russian civilians in the region. Both Russian and Ukrainian leaders have become personally involved in Savchenko's trial. Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed anger about the Russian journalists' deaths, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has taken charge of efforts to free Savchenko. The Russian Investigative Committee, Russia's equivalent of the FBI, contends Savchenko deliberately helped a Ukrainian mortar crew target the television journalists during a battle. Two of the three members of the state-owned Rossiya TV crew, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Volshin, died in the shelling. "Having gained the coordinates of a group of Russian journalists and other civilians near Luhansk, Savchenko passed them on to the combatants," the Investigative Committee said in a statement. "We have said many times that all those who commit war crimes on the territory of Ukraine will be called to account," committee spokesman Vladimir Markin added. Savchenko says she was fighting with a ground unit when the journalists were killed and denied targeting them. Ukraine's consul was given permission to visit Savchenko in the detention center, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported Wednesday, citing the Federal Prison Service. The consul had previously been denied access to her. Savchenko's family hired Feigin in hopes he will turn her prosecution into a show trial that generates international headlines, as he did in the Pussy Riot case. The family turned to Feigin after the court in Voronez refused to let a Ukrainian attorney defend her, according to her sister, Vera. "The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has started an Open Dialogue Fund that will pay Feigin's fees," she said. Savchenko is a national hero at home, where she is referred to as Ukraine's "G.I. Jane." In addition to being the country's first female military pilot, she was also the only woman to serve with Ukrainian peacekeepers in Iraq and was a high-profile participant in the Kiev protests that led to the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich in February. Savchenko endeared herself to the Ukrainian public with her cool but defiant demeanor during an interrogation by separatists, who posted a video of it on YouTube. Asked how many forces are fighting the insurgents, she replies: "Do you think I know this? I think the whole of Ukraine (is fighting against you)." Poroshenko contends she was "kidnapped" by the separatists and that Moscow ordered them to hand her over — acts that violate "all rules of international law." Ukraine government dismisses Russia's claim that she was arrested after slipping across the border disguised as a refugee. Putin has been vocal about what he contends is Ukraine's mistreatment of Russian journalists covering the Ukraine conflict. He expressed anger about an earlier death of a Russian journalist and Ukraine's temporary detention of some journalists. Journalism groups say Putin's comments are ironic since Russia is hostile to reporters. Fifty-six Russian journalists have been killed in the country since 1992, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, according to the Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Ukraine had been one of the Soviet republics. Vera Savchenko, who spent three weeks in the war zone trying to locate her captured sister, said it wasn't until July 7 that the family learned Nadiya was in Russia. That was when a court-appointed defense attorney called the pilot's mother Mariya in Kiev. He said Nadiya had been in Russia since June 23, six days after her capture. In addition to hiring Feigin, the family is taking Nadiya's case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, which has a history of siding against Russia in human-rights cases. The family also plans an international "Free Nadiya" campaign to press Russia to drop the prosecution, Vera Savchenko said. Ukrainians have already started a "Free Our Girl" social-media campaign, mimicking one created to free schoolgirls abducted by terrorists in Nigeria. Meanwhile, Poroshenko and other Ukrainian officials are working the diplomatic front. The president has spoken to leaders of the United States, Germany, France and other countries about Savchenko. The United States has condemned the charges against Savchenko and her being taken to Russia in the first place. In Moscow, some analysts see a downside in choosing Feigin as a defense attorney because he is more interested in politics. "Such a lawyer is bad news for Savchenko, because his aim is to bury the accused for the sake of political effect damaging to the Russian government," said Sergei Markov, a political analyst and Kremlin adviser.
WASHINGTON, DC -- Russia has failed to take steps to end the Ukraine conflict, President Barack Obama said Wednesday in announcing expanded sanctions targeting two banks, two energy companies, Ukraine separatists and defense companies. European Union leaders also said they intended to increase sanctions, signaling growing Western concern over Russia's continued support for separatists battling the Ukraine military in the country's eastern region. "We have to see concrete actions, and not just words that Russia in fact is committed to trying to end this conflict along the Russia-Ukraine border," Obama told reporters at the White House. With the new sanctions, "what we are expecting is that the Russian leadership will see once again that its actions in Ukraine have consequences, including a weakening economy, and increasing diplomatic isolation," the President said. The latest U.S. sanctions build on earlier steps by targeting two major Russian banks -- Gazprom Bank and VEB -- and two energy companies -- Novotek and Rosneft. They will not be able to get new medium- and long-term financing in the United States, senior administration officials told reporters in a conference call. In addition, the new sanctions freeze any U.S. assets and prohibit American business contacts for eight Russian arms companies that make weapons, including small arms, mortars and surface-to-air missiles. One of the eight is the Kalashnikov Concern, maker of the AK-47 and other arms. Four Russian government officials, including the minister of Crimean affairs, along with the self-styled Luhansk People's Republic and Donetsk People's Republic leading the separatist campaign in eastern Ukraine, and Aleksandr Borodai, the self-declared "prime minister" of the Donetsk group. Targeting the separatist groups that simulate government structures prevents them from seeking financing, the senior administration officials noted. Earlier this year, the United States and Europe imposed a range of sanctions in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea this spring and massing of troops along its eastern border with Ukraine. The earlier sanctions included asset freezes and travel bans. 19 Ukrainian troops killed in rocket attack, military says Russia and Ukraine have since been engaged in a tense standoff, including clashes between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. "I've repeatedly made it clear that Russia must halt the flow of weapons and fighters across the border into Ukraine, that Russia must urge separatists to release their hostages and support a cease-fire, that Russia needs to pursue internationally-mediated talks, and agree to meaningful monitors on the border," Obama said. Russia has failed to do any of those steps, he added. Ukraine's government in Kiev has accused Russia of allowing weapons and military equipment, including tanks, to cross the border illegally into the hands of pro-Russian separatists. The senior administration officials who briefed reporters also leveled the same accusation. Meanwhile, the Pentagon said on Wednesday Russia now had 12,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, as well as some heavy weapons. The troop numbers had fallen to about 1,000 previously from a high of an estimated 40,000 forces earlier this year.