Eastern Ukraine Town Sent Reeling After Checkpoint Killings

The killing of three people at a checkpoint in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slaviansk has increased tension in the town, where a government building is being occupied by pro-Moscow militants.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. In the midst of the standoff over Ukraine today, a high level visit from the United States. Vice President Joe Biden is in Kiev for the next two days, meeting with the interim Ukrainian government. The trip is supposed to focus on Ukraine's economy, but the worsening security situation may end up taking center stage.

BLOCK: Over the weekend, the three pro-Russian separatists were killed in eastern Ukraine, and so far an agreement for armed groups to lay down their weapons seems to be having little effect. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley went to the flashpoint eastern town of Slovyansk.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Journalists had been warned about all the checkpoints around hardcore separatist eastern Ukrainian towns. We hit our first one about 45 minutes out of Donetsk as our driver, Igor(ph), headed towards Slovyansk. We made it through OK, but the guard's message was ominous.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He said that, he said good evening, and then, Igor said, but maybe good day. And he said, in this country, it's always evening and we do not know when the sun will raise.

BEARDSLEY: The weekend's killings seemed to have strengthened the determination of people in Slovyansk to fight the new government in Kiev. They believe truth is on their side.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEARDSLEY: Soviet military music blares out in front of the town hall, which is now entirely occupied by the militants. Tires, sandbags, and barbed wire secure the perimeter and stacks of sandbags are visible in upper floor windows. It seems clear these people have no intention of leaving anytime soon.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that if illegal military groups like these don't pull back by the weekend, Russia could face more sanctions. Kerry's Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, accused Kiev of violating the Geneva agreement but not disarming right wing groups in the capital.

A masked separatist wearing camouflage and carrying a Kalashnikov, who did not wish to give his name, said he was defending his town from fascists in Kiev.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through translator) We will leave these buildings when a referendum for seceded from Ukraine is held and people here can express their free will.

BEARDSLEY: I ask him if he plans to vote in the Ukrainian presidential elections set for May.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Nyet.

BEARDSLEY: No, he says, that one is completely illegitimate. Suddenly, a police car pulls up. Two masked separatists get up. They've commandeered Ukrainian police vehicles in this town and put their own emblem on the hood. It reads: the People's Army of Donbass, referring to this eastern steel-making region. We've also seen captured Ukrainian armored vehicles flying the same emblem as they drive around town.

This usurpation of national authority might scare some people, but just the opposite seems to be happening here. A mother with her daughter and their dog pose for a picture with a masked gunman. She doesn't want to give her name either.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: We support them, she says. We're happy that they're helping us and protecting our children. We head a little ways out of town to the checkpoint where the three people were killed Sunday morning. About a dozen men are hanging out. They approach us with pictures of their dead colleagues and ask for a donation. One of those killed was a school bus driver, they say. Another was only 24 years old.

A 27-year-old metal worker who gives his name as Anton says he was there when the shootout was there.

ANTON: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: He says Sunday's killings have only hardened their resolve to defend their families and city from fascists who are trying to get them. He says the population must take part and fight in the war. Is a war coming here?

ANTON: (Through translator) It's already started. People are dying already.

BEARDSLEY: This is our land, Anton says, and we'll defend it. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Slovyansk, Ukraine.

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