Firefights And Fallen Separatists, As Ukraine Offensive Advances

Early Thursday morning, the Ukrainian military moved into towns held by militants. Firefights and casualties have been reported at a number of different locations.

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Secretary of State John Kerry had a stern warning for Russian late today. He said the window is closing for Russia to take steps to deescalate the crisis in Ukraine, and he threatened further sanctions.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Let me be clear. It Russia continues in this direction, it will not just be a grave mistake, it will be an expensive mistake.

BLOCK: This comes on the same day the Ukrainian military started an offensive against pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine. The government in Kiev wants to oust militants who've been occupying government buildings in a number of cities in the region. There have been firefights and several people are reported to be dead.

Earlier today, I spoke with NPR's Eleanor Beardsley who is in Donetsk. She says there were firefights with several people reported dead.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Early this morning, we heard that the government had sent the military into two towns being occupied by the separatist militants and had routed them. And the Interior Ministry said the towns had been liberated with no deaths or injuries. And then the Ukrainian military rolled into a really hard-line separatist town called Slavyansk, which is about an hour and a half north of Donetsk. This town had not been secured by the Ukrainian army. And I've been there, and I can tell you the militants are really entrenched. They've turned the town hall into a fortified bunker. They've got shooting positions, sandbags stacked up in upper floor windows. The ones we interviewed said they vowed to defend it to the end.

But the president, acting president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, said that the operation to route the militants would continue.

BLOCK: And as the government has moved into these areas, how have people been reacting?

BEARDSLEY: Well, there's a lot of unverified information flying about. For example, Ukrainian media is reporting that the separatists in Slavyansk are not allowing parents to pick up their kids from kindergarten, and that the militants are giving guns to teenagers. But let me stress, we are in the middle of a propaganda war here and these are unconfirmed reports on Ukrainian television.

Now, the self-appointed mayor of Slavyansk, he said he's going to turn the battle for Slavyansk into Stalingrad.

BLOCK: That's quite a vow there, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, pretty incredible. And the Ukrainian military was dropping leaflets to residents of Slavyansk to stay inside. And the mayor said if he caught anybody with those leaflets they'd be summarily executed.

BLOCK: Eleanor, what's been going on in Donetsk, where you are?

BEARDSLEY: It was calm today. People were out having lunch at cafes and ice cream. It seems normal although they did close the schools and is on the back of everyone's minds.

Outside the town hall here, which is also occupied, a small crowd was out watching the coverage of unfolding events on Russian television. Most people said they were disgusted that the army moved in and that this should be solved by dialogue. But one guy told me it's time to restore order.

BLOCK: You mentioned Russian television there. What has been the reaction from Moscow to the Ukrainian government's offensive?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Russian President Vladimir Putin said a country using its army against its citizens was a grave crime. And then Russian soldiers, who've been parked on the eastern Ukrainian border for the last month or so, started new exercises today. But NATO in Poland also did its own exercises. So there's a lot of saber rattling, tensions are rising. One man told me today: We know that Ukraine is only a pawn, stuck in the middle of a geopolitical battle between Russia and the West.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Donetsk, Ukraine. Eleanor, thanks.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Melissa.

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