Ukraine moves against insurgents in the east

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Black smoke billows from burning tires at a checkpoint following an attack by Ukrainian troops outside Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, April 24, 2014. Ukrainian government troops moved against pro-Russia forces in the east of the country on Thursday and killed at least two of them in clashes at checkpoints manned by the insurgents, the government and insurgents said. Russian President Vladimir Putin decried what he described as a “punitive operation.” (AP Photo/Mika Velikovskiy)

Black smoke billows from burning tires at a checkpoint following an attack by Ukrainian troops outside Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, April 24, 2014. Ukrainian government troops moved against pro-Russia forces in the east of the country on Thursday and killed at least two of them in clashes at checkpoints manned by the insurgents, the government and insurgents said. Russian President Vladimir Putin decried what he described as a “punitive operation.” (AP Photo/Mika Velikovskiy)

President Barack Obama speaks as he participates in a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Akasaka Palace state guest house in Tokyo Thursday, April 24, 2014. Obama says the time is now to resolve issues preventing the conclusion of a major, 12-nation trade agreement. Opening a four-country swing through the Asia-Pacific region, Obama is aiming to promote the U.S. as a committed economic, military and political partner, but the West’s dispute with Russia over Ukraine threatens to cast a shadow over the president’s sales mission. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A group of journalists look at burning tires at a checkpoint following an attack by Ukrainian troops outside in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, April 24, 2014. Ukrainian government troops moved against pro-Russia forces in the east of the country on Thursday and killed at least two of them in clashes at checkpoints manned by the insurgents, the government and insurgents said. Russian President Vladimir Putin decried what he described as a “punitive operation.” (AP Photo/Mika Velikovskiy)

Ukrainian troops take position next to burning tires at a pro Russian checkpoint following an attack by Ukrainian troops outside in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, April 24, 2014. Ukrainian government troops moved against pro-Russia forces in the east of the country on Thursday and killed at least two of them in clashes at checkpoints manned by the insurgents, the government and insurgents said. Russian President Vladimir Putin decried what he described as a “punitive operation.” (AP Photo/Mika Velikovskiy)

Smoke billows from burning tires around a Ukrainian special forces soldier at a checkpoint following an attack by Ukrainian troops outside Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, April 24, 2014. Ukrainian government troops moved against pro-Russia forces in the east of the country on Thursday and killed at least two of them in clashes at checkpoints manned by the insurgents, the government and insurgents said. Russian President Vladimir Putin decried what he described as a “punitive operation.” (AP Photo/Mika Velikovskiy)

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SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia began new military exercises near its border with Ukraine, the defense minister announced Thursday, after Ukrainian forces launched an operation to drive pro-Russia insurgents out of occupied buildings in the country’s tumultuous east.

The Ukrainian move, which killed at least two people, brought new threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who denounced it as a “punitive operation.”

“If the Kiev government is using the army against its own people this is clearly a grave crime,” Putin said.

His statement and the announcement of new military exercises involving ground and air forces sharpened anxiety over the prospect of a Russian military incursion into Ukraine. Russia’s foreign minister warned a day earlier that any attack on Russian citizens or interests in eastern Ukraine would bring a strong response.

The crisis “could quickly spin out of control,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Thursday.

Animosity between Moscow and Kiev has been high since the ouster of Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych in February in the wake of months of protests. Russia contends the government that took over consists of nationalists who aim to suppress the large Russian-speaking population in Ukraine’s east.

In March, Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula after its residents voted to split off from Ukraine. Russian troops backed up local militias that blocked off Ukrainian military bases in the run-up to the referendum.

Ukraine’s acting president accused Russia of backing the separatists in the east and demanded that Moscow stop its intimidation campaign, and leave his country alone.

Oleksandr Turchynov said in an address to the nation Thursday that Russia was “coordinating and openly supporting terrorist killers” in eastern Ukraine, where government buildings in at least 10 cities have been seized by pro-Russia gunmen.

Turchynov said Russia must pull back its troops from the Ukrainian border and “stop the constant threats and blackmail.”

His foreign minister, on a visit to Prague, also blasted the Russian decision to start new military maneuvers and said his country would fight any invading troops.

“We will now fight with Russian troops if … they invade Ukraine. Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian army are ready to do this,” Andriy Deshchytisa told The Associated Press.

Russia already has tens of thousands of troops stationed in regions along its border with Ukraine. The latest Russian military exercises involve ground troops in the south and the west and the air forces patrolling the border, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

Ukraine and Russia reached a deal in Geneva last week to defuse the crisis, but pro-Russian insurgents in the east — and nationalist militants in Kiev — have defied calls for all sides to disarm and to vacate the buildings they are occupying.

NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow sharply criticized Russia for making “veiled threats” and said Russia should pull its troops back to their barracks.

The Ukrainian government and the West worry that Putin would welcome a pretext for a military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Putin denies that any Russian agents are operating there, but insists he has the right to intervene to protect the ethnic Russians who make up a sizeable minority in the east.

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