U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, right, talks with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk during an April 22 meeting in Kiev, Ukraine. (Andrew Kravchenko / AP)
KIEV, UKRAINE — Ukraine’s president on Tuesday ordered the country’s forces to renew a military operation against pro-Russian militants in East Ukraine after the killing of two men and a shooting at a plane.
President Oleksandr Turchynov said one of the victims was Vladimir Rybak, a delegate in local parliament in East Ukraine who was a member of the president’s political party.
“The terrorists who basically have taken the entire Donetsk region hostage have crossed the line with torturing and killing Ukrainian patriots,” Turchynov said.
Turchynov blamed the deaths on Russian forces he says have infiltrated East Ukraine to promote unrest as a pretext for an invasion by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The bodies were found near the city of Slovyansk, where pro-Russian militants have been taking over government buildings and demanding a referendum on joining Russia, as happened in the province of Crimea last month.
Mayors and police officers have reported they too have been kidnapped and forced to resign from office. A Ukrainian military reconnaissance plane took small arms fire and was damaged while flying over the city of Slovyansk.
Ukraine had agreed to suspend a military operation against the militants after Western and Russian diplomats last week, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, issued a statement that all sides should disarm. Turchynov said only the Ukraine government has abided by the truce.
“Both Russia and its terrorist units that are defiantly present in Ukraine haven’t implemented the agreements made in Geneva,” Turchynov said, referring to the well-armed and masked soldiers at the occupied buildings who are believed to be Russian troops.
Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov refused to comment on the fact that those it supports have refused to surrender their arms. He instead claimed that Ukraine’s refusal to break up peaceful protests in the capital of Kiev means it has not complied with the Geneva agreement.
The violence comes on a day as Vice President Biden arrived in Kiev to show support for the government and to tell Moscow, “It’s time to stop talking and start acting.”
Standing next to Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Biden said Russia must urge pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine to end its takeover of government buildings and “address their grievances politically” rather than with force.
Biden said Russia needs to act “without delay,” adding, “we will not allow this to become an open-ended process.”
Pro-Russian Ukrainians in at least eight cities have taken over government offices in an attempt to force a referendum on whether to secede and join Russia. Militants did the same in the Ukraine province of Crimea, which Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed despite warnings from the White House not to do so.
Turchynov told Biden that Russia is using the same playbook in eastern Ukraine as it did in Crimea, infiltrating cities with its special forces to direct militants on how to challenge the Ukraine government.
In East Ukraine, militants repeated that they were not a party to the diplomatic talks in Geneva and not bound by it.
“No one will make us vacate this building,” said Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, leader of the pro-Russian protesters in the eastern city of Slovyansk, where three pro-Russian protesters were shot and killed over the weekend.
Ukrainians say the Geneva agreement appears to be a farce that means nothing.
“I don’t see any chance that the protesters will vacate the buildings and surrender,” said Oksana Makarenko, who lives in Donetsk, the center of the troubled eastern region.
“They obviously don’t recognize the government in Kiev and there is no way they will obey the agreement that the government participated in signing. The government and international community will have to come up with something else.”
The mood in East Ukraine was tense Tuesday as several hundred supporters of the pro-Russian protests attended the funeral of the three civilians who died in the attack on a checkpoint.
Russian state television is saying the killers were Ukraine extremists who hate Russians, but provided little evidence of it. Putin had invaded Crimea after saying he had to protect ethnic Russians there, though it was ethnic Russians who had taken over buildings and attacked Ukrainian military posts. Ukraine believes Putin may use the same pretext to invade eastern Ukraine.
Meantime, pro-Russian militants kidnapped the police chief in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, just outside Slovyansk.
Biden said that the U.S. will never recognize Russia’s occupation of Crimea, which has been called illegal by the international community. He said the White House will offer Ukraine a $50 million aid package to weather a tough financial situation.
Washington wants the funds to be used for political and economic reforms in a country that has long suffered from perceptions about the abuse of power.
Biden said that a separate financial aid package due from the International Monetary Fund worth up to $18 billion will soon also be finalized.
“The opportunity to generate a united Ukraine and getting it right is within your grasp. And we want to be your partner and friend in the project. We’re ready to assist,” Biden told the Ukraine parliament.
Critics of the Obama administration’s handling of the Ukraine crisis say Ukraine needs military backing, not financial aid, to survive Russia’s threat. John Bolton, former ambassador to the U.N. under then-president George W. Bush, said President Obama should offer a “clear path” for Ukraine to join NATO, the European-U.S. military alliance.
“It makes eminent good sense and I think that would be an enormous deterrent to Russian adventurism,” Bolton told Fox News.
Contributing: The Associated Press