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Published: Monday April 14, 2014 MYT 3:20:52 PM
Updated: Monday April 14, 2014 MYT 3:20:52 PM

Ukraine's east braces for anti-rebel operation as deadline passes

A pro-Russian supporter eats next to a stove on a street near in the seized office of the SBU state security service, in Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine April 13, 2014. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

A pro-Russian supporter eats next to a stove on a street near in the seized office of the SBU state security service, in Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine April 13, 2014. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

SLAVIANSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - Towns in eastern Ukraine on Monday braced for military action from government forces as a deadline passed for pro-Russian separatists to disarm and end their occupation of state buildings or face a major "anti-terrorist" operation.

As the 9 a.m. (07.00 a.m. BST) deadline issued by authorities in Kiev expired, a Reuters reporter in the flashpoint city of Slaviansk, where armed men had seized two government buildings, said there was no outward sign the rebels were complying with the ultimatum.

Angered by the death of a state security officer and the wounding of two comrades near Slaviansk, acting president Oleksander Turchinov warned rebels on Sunday that a full-scale security operation, including the army, would be unleashed unless they met the deadline.

Turchinov and other leaders blame Russia, which annexed Ukraine's Crimea region when Moscow-backed former president Viktor Yanukovich fled after months of pro-Western protests, for inspiring and organising a rash of rebellions in Slaviansk and other Russian-speaking towns in eastern Ukraine.

"We will not allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in the eastern regions of Ukraine," Turchinov said on Sunday night.

The crisis has brought relations between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War in 1991, and also carries a risk of unleashing a "gas war" which could disrupt energy supplies across Europe.

Use of force by Kiev's pro-Europe authorities could trigger a fresh confrontation from Russia. Russia's foreign ministry called the planned military operation a "criminal order" and said the West should bring its allies in Ukraine's government under control.

The United Nations Security Council held an emergency session on Sunday night, and the United States warned that it was likely to impose further sanctions on the Kremlin if the escalation in eastern Ukraine continues.

In Slaviansk as of 9 a.m. local time on Monday, a Russian flag still flew over police headquarters, one of two buildings taken over by the separatists, while masked men continued to man barricades of sandbags in front of it.

Even as the deadline passed, a truck appeared bringing more tyres to heap on top of the barricades to reinforce them.

There was tension in the air as people tried to go about their normal business, though school and colleges have been closed and parents advised to keep their children indoors.

Alexei Myzenko, a 38-year-old bank teller, was at work as usual, but he said he and his wife had told their son, who is at university in the eastern town of Kharkiv, not to attend lectures on Monday.

"We didn't want anything to happen to him," said Myzenko. "Of course, some people are afraid. But they are still lining up to get their pensions," he said.

Myzenko said his wife, who is a teacher, had been called by the town administration to tell her that school was cancelled until further notice.

Iryna Zemlyanskaya, 62, who works as a pharmacist, said: "I am going to work. They've promised to use force so many times and have not done a single thing. No-one's even afraid anymore."

"We will not allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in the eastern regions of Ukraine," Turchinov said on Sunday night.

INTERNATIONAL MOVES

in New York, Britain's U.N. ambassador said Russia had massed tens of thousands of well-equipped troops near the Ukrainian border in addition to the 25,000 troops it recently moved into Crimea.

Earlier, the American ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, said on ABC's "This Week" that the latest events in Ukraine bore "the telltale signs of Moscow's involvement".

"The president has made clear that, depending on Russian behaviour, sectoral sanctions in energy, banking, mining could be on the table, and there's a lot in between," she added.

European Union foreign ministers were due to meet in Strasbourg on Monday to discuss Ukraine.

The EU and the United States have already imposed limited sanctions on Moscow following its annexation of Crimea.

With East-West relations in crisis, NATO described the appearance in eastern Ukraine of men with specialised Russian weapons and identical uniforms without insignia - as previously worn by Moscow's troops when they seized Crimea - as a "grave development".

Ukraine has repeatedly said the rebellions are inspired and directed by the Kremlin. But action to dislodge the armed militants risks tipping the stand-off into a new, dangerous phase as Moscow has warned it will protect the region's Russian-speakers if they come under attack.

Kiev accuses the Kremlin of trying to undermine the legitimacy of presidential elections on May 25 that aim to set Ukraine back onto a normal path after months of turmoil.

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Kiev was "demonstrating its inability to take responsibility for the fate of the country" and warned that any use of force against Russian speakers "would undermine the potential for cooperation", including talks due to be held on Thursday between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union.

The U.S.-led NATO alliance has effectively ruled out military action over Ukraine, which lies outside the Western alliance. However, Washington and NATO leaders have made clear they would defend all 28 member states, including former Soviet republics in the Baltic that are seen as the most vulnerable to Russian pressure.

(Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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