Ukraine forces kill up to five rebels, Russia starts drill near border

A Ukrainian security force officer is deployed at a checkpoint set on fire and left by pro-Russian separatists near Slaviansk April 24, 2014

(Reuters) – Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels on Thursday as they closed in on the separatists’ military stronghold in the east and Russia launched army drills near the border in response, raising fears its troops would go in.

Under an international accord signed in Geneva last week, illegal armed groups in Ukraine, including the rebels occupying about a dozen public buildings in the largely Russian-speaking east, are supposed to disarm and go home.

But they have shown no signs of doing so and on Thursday the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said its forces backed by the army had removed three checkpoints manned by armed groups in the separatist-controlled city of Slaviansk.

“During the armed clash up to five terrorists were eliminated,” it said in a statement, adding that one person had been wounded on the side of the government forces.

A rebel spokeswoman in Slaviansk said two fighters had died in a clash in the same area, northeast of the city center.

The Kremlin has built up forces on Ukraine’s border – estimated by NATO officials at up to 40,000 troops – and maintains it has the right to protect Russian-speakers if they come under threat, a reason it gave for annexing the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last month…

In related news: Russia’s Gazprom says Ukraine owes extra $11 billion for gas: (Reuters) – Russia’s Gazprom has slapped Ukraine energy firm Naftogaz with an additional $11.4 billion gas bill, more than five times its previous claim, ratcheting up pressure on Kiev amid the deepest East-West rift since the end of the Cold War.

The political crisis in Ukraine, now in its fourth month, has pitted Russia against the United States and the European Union, which have sanctioned Moscow over its annexation of Crimea peninsula.

A Gazprom source said the $11.4 billion was in addition to the $2.2 billion that Naftogaz already owes for supplies in 2013 and 2014 so far…

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