Slavyansk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Russia ordered new military exercises on the border of Ukraine Thursday and warned of "consequences" after Kiev launched a deadly assault against pro-Kremlin rebels occupying the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, in an escalation of the crisis. But Ukraine's president vowed to see through the military operation, telling Russia to "stop interfering" in the former Soviet republic, and declaring that Kiev would not yield to "the terrorist threat". The rocketing tensions sent oil prices up, as US President Barack Obama, who has deployed troops to boost NATO's defences in eastern European states, accused Russia of reneging on an agreement to defuse the crisis.
Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - The Palestinians are considering "all options" in response to Israel's decision to halt peace talks and punish the Palestinian Authority over its unity deal with Hamas, an official said Thursday. “The Palestinian leadership will look into all options to respond to Israeli government decisions against the PA,” senior Palestinian official Saeb Erakat told AFP. “The priority now for the Palestinians is reconciliation and national unity,” he added. On Wednesday, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) -- internationally recognised as the sole representative of the Palestinian people -- and Islamist rulers of the Gaza Strip Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement.
By Aleksandar Vasovic and Alexei Anishchuk SLAVIANSK, Ukraine/ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - U krainian 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 invade. 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 few 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. A rebel spokeswoman in Slaviansk said two fighters had died in a clash in the same area, northeast of the city center.
Pope Francis's habit of picking up the phone and cold calling people who write to him is landing the Vatican in hot water and spokesman Federico Lombardi has had enough. The spokesman said media reports about the phone calls have been "a source of misunderstanding and confusion". The statement follows reports about a phone call that Francis apparently made to a woman in Argentina who had complained her parish priest would not grant her Holy Communion because she had divorced and remarried. Francis was quoted by the woman's husband as saying that the issue was being "looked at" in the Vatican and that divorcees who take Holy Communion "are doing nothing bad".
By Alissa de Carbonnel and Aleksandar Vasovic DONETSK/SLAVIANSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - One is a dapper former croupier and promoter of Ponzi scams run by "Russia's Bernie Madoff"; In an uprising whose calling cards are the Kalashnikov and the black balaclava, Denis Pushilin and Vyacheslav Ponomaryov have become the unmasked faces of the pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine that has plunged Moscow and the West into their most ominous confrontation since the Cold War. But many in the Donetsk region, including officials who have negotiated with the activists, see the pair as mere fronts for brains behind the scenes: a "puppeteer" in the words of one local Ukrainian mediator; Pushilin, a 32-year-old who won 77 votes when he ran for parliament a few months ago, emerged this month as leader of the self-styled People's Republic of Donetsk, occupying the regional governor's office in Ukraine's industrial heartland.
Swidwin (Poland) (AFP) - The first American troops arrived in Poland on Wednesday, after Washington said it was sending a force of 600 there and to the Baltic states amid rising tensions with Russia over Ukraine. Some 130 soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade -- nicknamed "Sky Soldiers" -- touched down early afternoon in Swidwin, in the northwest of the country, and were welcomed by Poland's defence minister. "Every day we work on the defence of our country but in a world that is changing, and that is full of threats, we need strong and steadfast allies such as the United States and NATO," Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said under a cloudy sky.