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Ukraine

EU, US ready new sanctions against Russia as tensions in Ukraine mount

The EU and US are to discuss a new series of bans aimed at Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. Despite calls from Moscow to de-escalate tensions with Kyiv, the West accuses it of further stoking the political crisis.

Top officials from the EU's 28 member states were scheduled to convene in Brussels on Monday for a special meeting aimed at levying more sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest allies. They were reportedly considering asset freezes and travel bans.

Officials in Washington also planned on deliberating over similar considerations later in the day. US bans would likely target high-technology exports to Russia's defense industry and companies, US President Barack Obama told reporters in Manila on Monday, where he was wrapping up his Asia tour.

"The goal here is not to go after Mr. Putin personally," Obama said. "The goal is to change his calculus with respect to how the current actions...could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul and to encourage him to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk [regarding the crisis in Ukraine]."

Threats from the EU and US of hurting Russia by blocking economic activity and relations with the West come just two days after the Group of Seven (G7) major economies agreed to target Moscow with restrictions as well. It cited Ukraine's upcoming elections in its decision, saying it wanted to "intensify targeted sanctions" in order to ensure that the presidential poll could move forward peacefully.

Moscow, meanwhile, contends it wants to maintain peace in Ukraine. However, Obama dismissed the rhetoric over the weekend, instead accusing the Russia government of not having "lifted a finger" to de-escalate tensions.

"In fact, there's strong evidence that [Russia has been] encouraging the activities in eastern and southern Ukraine," Obama said on Sunday during the third leg of his Asia tour in Malaysia.

In recent weeks, pro-Russian separatists have occupied government buildings across several cities in eastern Ukraine. The US has said there was evidence that Moscow had helped orchestrated the well-coordinated takeovers. Moreover, Russia has amassed thousands of troops along its southwestern border with Ukraine, raising fears among Western powers that it plans to stage a military intervention.

Unrest in eastern cities

Early reports indicated on Monday that an armed group, believed to be pro-Russian separatists, stormed the at least one government building in the city of Kostyantynivka.

News agency AFP reported that they had taken over the town hall. Meanwhile, a report from Reuters news agency said they had seized the local police station.

"At 6:00 a.m. (0300 UTC) about 30 separatists came to the local police headquarters and occupied the ground floor. Negotiations are underway with the local police chief," Ukrainian interior ministry spokesperson Laryssa Volkova told Reuters.

"We do not know that their demands are," Volkova added.

The eastern Ukrainian city with some 80,000 inhabitants lies at roughly the halfway point between Slovyansk and Donetsk.

In a separate incident, the pro-Russian mayor of the town Kharkiv, Gennady Kernes, had been wounded by gunfire and was undergoing an operation, according to initial reports on Monday. Local officials cited by Ukraine's Interfax news agency described his condition as serious. It was not immediately clear who had staged the attack, nor if there were any other casualties.

Rebels release one hostage

The political crisis in Ukraine was dominated over the weekend by the detention of several observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Slovyansk. On Sunday evening, the separatist group holding them captive released a Swedish member of the team.

On Monday, the German government condemned the hostage situation and called for their immediate release. It also called on Russia to secure the release of the remaining military observers.

"We ask the Russian government to act publicly and internally for their release, to distance itself clearly from such acts and to use its influence on pro-Russian perpetrators and forces in eastern Ukraine to secure their release," German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesperson Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin.

On Sunday, the eight OSCE members were brought before the media during a press conference. German Colonel Alex Schneider, speaking on behalf of the group, told journalists that no one had been harmed, but that they were not allowed to leave of their own free will.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, who has assumed control of Slovyansk as mayor, said he believed the group's release could be negotiated, but that they were being treated as NATO spies. The leader of the self-declared Donetsk Republic, Denis Pushilin, said on Saturday that OSCE group would only be released on the condition that an exchange take place for rebel prisoners being held. Several Ukrainian citizens who had been accompanying the team have also been detained.

kms/pfd (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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