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Russia Defiant Regarding Ukraine       01/26 06:43

   Russian officials struck a defiant note Monday after Western leaders 
threatened to further punish Moscow for escalated fighting in eastern Ukraine 
over the weekend.

   MOSCOW (AP) -- Russian officials struck a defiant note Monday after Western 
leaders threatened to further punish Moscow for escalated fighting in eastern 
Ukraine over the weekend.

   Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told journalists that rocket shelling 
Saturday in the city of Mariupol, which left at least 30 people dead, was a 
tragedy that was being manipulated to "whip up anti-Russian hysteria" in the 
West.

   President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Russian news 
agencies that Ukraine was responsible for the "barbarous shelling" and said 
that the crisis could only be resolved if there was "firm political will on the 
part of Kiev."

   The Russian economy has been hit hard by Western sanctions and plummeting 
oil prices, and the ruble has already lost about half its value in the past 
year.

   The ruble tumbled by almost 3 percent on news of more possible sanctions 
against Russia, dropping to 65.5 to the dollar from 63.7.

   Lavrov also blamed Kiev for the uptick in violence, and said that the rebels 
were only responding to a government offensive.

   "To expect that they (the rebels) would simply reconcile themselves to being 
bombed would be naive," he said. "They started to act... with the goal of 
destroying Ukrainian army positions being used to shell populated areas."

   Ukrainian armed forces spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said seven soldiers had 
been killed and 24 others wounded in the past day of fighting. He said 184 
soldiers were in rebel captivity.

   There was no fighting in Mariupol on Monday. A road leading out of the city 
into rebel territory was closed off by Ukrainian forces, making it unclear 
whether the rebels had advanced closer to the city outskirts. The city streets 
were quiet as the families of those killed Sunday gathered to bury their dead.

   In the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, however, shelling continued regularly 
throughout the day, though it was unclear whether there had been any civilian 
casualties.

   While sanctions are set to expire this summer, President Barack Obama said 
Sunday that Washington would work with its European partners to "ratchet up the 
pressure on Russia" in response to the latest violence. EU foreign ministers 
will hold an extraordinary session on Thursday to discuss the situation in 
Ukraine.

   At least 5,100 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since fighting 
began in April, but fighting this week was the most intense since a cease-fire 
deal was signed in September.

   Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Black Sea still controlled by 
Ukrainian forces, has been a symbolic bulwark against the separatist advance 
that if captured by the rebels would give them a land corridor to 
Russia-controlled Crimea. The city had been relatively quiet for months before 
Saturday's attack.

   The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's monitoring mission 
in east Ukraine has said the Grad and Uragan rockets that hit Mariupol were 
fired from areas under rebel control. Separatist leaders initially announced 
that they had begun an offensive on the city, but quickly backtracked and 
blamed Ukraine for the carnage after the extent of civilian casualties became 
known.   


(KA)


 
 
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