Local pro-Russian leader Vyatcheslav Ponomarev shows ammunition found after a gun battle at a checkpoint in the pro-Russian separatist-held town of Slovyansk early on April 20, 2014. AFP PHOTO/KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV
BYLBASOVKA, Ukraine -- The promise of a peaceful Easter Sunday was shattered early on April 20, after at least three persons were killed in a gun battle in eastern Ukraine.
The shootout began around 3 a.m. in Bylbasovka, a suburb of the city of Sloviansk in Donetsk Oblast.
Local witnesses said four cars drove up to the checkpoint with headlights on and opened fire at the pro-Russian militiamen guarding it, killing Serhiy Rudenko, a local school bus driver, and two others. Some of the locals told the Russian media the gun battle outside Sloviansk killed three and wounded one.
In a statement on its website, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) called the incident a "cynical provocation" and said it, too, believed the whole thing was staged.
Rudenko, one of the identified victims, was born in 1954 and was a local pro-Russian activist and one of those who built a barricade in his village and spent much of his time recently guarding it.
Anatoliy Kurochka, his neighbor, says he knew the victim for years. “I have known him since childhood. He built this barricade, and has been there from the first day," Kurochka says. “He wanted to defend us, he did not want us to be shot by people coming from western Ukraine.”
Local militants insist that the shootout was started by the nationalist group Right Sector because they say the business cards of its leader Dmytro Yarosh were found in one of the vehicles involved in the shooting. Two of them were seized by the pro-Russian self-defense representatives and burned. They have brand-new Dnipropetrovsk license plates.
Russia's RIA Novosti and Life News also blamed the far-right nationalist group Right Sector for instigating the gun battle. In a video report, Life News showed what it said was the body of one man killed during the shootout next to weapons, ammunition and gear left behind by Right Sector members at the scene. It also showed crisp U.S. $100 bills, uncreased printed satellite images of Slovyansk from Google Maps.
In a post on Facebook, prominent Right Sector member Borislav Bereza denounced the reports that his organization was involved and called Life News a "cesspool."
"They (Life News) have never published the truth," he wrote.
Russia's Foreign Ministry condemned the violence, which it said indicates Kyiv's unwillingness to stick to a deal hashed out this week in Geneva.
“The Russian side is outraged with the provocation, which indicates that Kyiv is unwilling to put in check and disarm nationalists and extremists,” the ministry said in a statement.
Moscow, the ministry added, “insists on the strict implementation by the Ukrainian side of its commitments to de-escalate the situation in southeastern Ukraine.”
The news came as Ukrainians in Slovyansk and across Eastern Europe celebrated Easter Sunday, one of the holiest days of the year for Orthodox believers, and a day after Ukraine's foreign ministry announced it would halt the "active stage" of an anti-terrorist operation put into play a week ago to purge pro-Russian militants from seized government buildings.
The Ukraine authorities' move was part of a deal agreed upon during a quadrilateral meeting between Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and the EU in Geneva this week during which the four laid out steps to deescalate the crisis here.
As part of the deal, armed separatist groups in eastern Ukraine would end their occupation of official buildings and give up their weapons. Other militant groups, such as the nationalist Right Sector, would also be forced to hand over their arms.
For its part, members of the Right Sector in Zhytomyr Oblast agreed to surrender to the Ukrainian Security Service 21 Molotov cocktails and two 50-liter drums with a ready incendiary, the security service's press center reported on Saturday evening. The transfer took place on April 19, it said.
But pro-Russian separatists say they are not bound by the Geneva agreement and have thus far refused to lay down their weapons.
They still occupy Donetsk's regional administration building as well as several other government buildings in the region and are demanding the resignation of Ukraine’s new government, which they believe illegally overthrew former President Viktor Yanukovych in February.
Kyiv Post editor Christopher J. Miller can be reached at email@example.com, and on Twitter at @ChristopherJM.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media