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KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine edged closer to a new round of hostilities Wednesday after the government in Kiev said it's resuming operations to oust militants from eastern cities and Russia pledged to defend its citizens in the neighboring country.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country is prepared to retaliate if its "legitimate interests" are "attacked directly," drawing a parallel with its actions during a 2008 war over the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia. A military operation is under way after its suspension for the Easter holiday, with security agencies seeking to eliminate all militias operating in Kramatorsk, Slovyansk and other cities, Ukraine's First Deputy Prime Minister Vitali Yarema told reporters in Kiev Wednesday.
"Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation," Lavrov said in an interview Wednesday with the state-run television broadcaster RT. "If we are attacked, we would certainly respond."
With international efforts to defuse the crisis grinding to a halt, the United States said it will send 600 troops for exercises in four countries bordering Russia, days after NATO bolstered the defense of frontline member states in eastern Europe. The opposing sides traded blame over the unrest as Ukraine stepped up accusations of Russian involvement in the killing of a politician and Russia pointed to signs of the U.S. meddling in the situation.
"We have seen signs that the Geneva agreement is being implemented, at least by the Ukrainians," Michael Mann, spokesman for the European Union's foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, told reporters in Brussels Wednesday. "We call on all parties to the joint statement on Ukraine to make sure that all terms are fully implemented, in particular for Russia to use its leverage to ensure an immediate end to what is going on in eastern Ukraine."
A week after NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance will upgrade contingency plans, hold more military drills in eastern Europe and step up air and naval policing on its flanks, the U.S. announced plans to send airborne infantry to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Company-sized units of 150 troops each from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team based in Vicenza, Italy, will arrive this week in the four nations — all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — for a month of training, Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday.
The soldiers may stay in the region until year-end, Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma said in an interview with Latvian Independent Television.
"This is a tangible representation of our commitment to security obligations in Europe and to the alliance" and comes in response to the crisis in Ukraine, Kirby said Tuesday.
A U.S. warship, the USS Taylor, planned to enter the Black Sea yesterday, to "promote peace and stability in the region," according to the U.S. Sixth Fleet. The French frigate Dupleix will arrive in the area April 26-27, Russia's state-run news agency Itar-Tass reported, citing an unidentified diplomat.
Russia has continued previously unscheduled military drills with exercises of its naval forces in the Caspian Sea that started today, according to the southern military district's press service.
The government in Kiev accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin of stirring unrest and exploiting the situation to possibly lay the groundwork for an invasion. The separatists who took over buildings in eastern Ukrainian cities have said they're not bound by the Geneva agreement.
Putin has parliamentary approval to deploy troops in Ukraine to protect Russian speakers and those of Russian heritage.
In a call Tuesday with Lavrov, Secretary of State John Kerry voiced concern "over the lack of positive Russian steps to de-escalate" the crisis, according to a State Department release. Lavrov, in a statement from his office, told Kerry that Ukraine must retract orders to use its army in the southeast and proceed with disarming local "ultra-nationalist" militias to comply with the accord.
Ukraine's government is doing its part to uphold the Geneva agreement and "Russia needs to comply with the commitments it made" or face more sanctions, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama.
While Carney said a decision to impose additional penalties may be made in the "coming days," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann warned against rushing to impose any new measures, saying today the conflict shouldn't be "fueled" by additional sanctions.
The U.S. and the EU have urged Russia to withdraw about 40,000 troops from its border with Ukraine. The Obama administration has threatened further measures against Russian interests, including the banking and energy industries, unless progress is made in easing the crisis sparked by Russia's annexation of Crimea last month.
The authorities in Kiev haven't fulfilled a single clause of the April 17 agreement, Lavrov told RT.
"There is no reason not to believe that the Americans are running the show," Lavrov said. "Ukraine is just one manifestation of America's unwillingness to yield in a geopolitical fight."
With the Geneva accord faltering, Ukraine has renewed its push to dislodge militants. The "active phase" of the military operation was suspended five days ago as Ukraine's government pledged to abide by the deal negotiated in Geneva by Ukraine, the European Union, the U.S. and Russia.
Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov Tuesday called on security forces to move against the separatists after the discovery of two bodies in the country's eastern region, saying that "terrorists" backed by Russia had "crossed the line." He spoke hours after meeting in Kiev with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who pledged American support including $50 million in aid.
Two Russian citizens, including an intelligence operative, are on a wanted list for orchestrating the killing of Volodymyr Rybak, whose body was among the two recovered yesterday, according to Ukraine's State Security Service, known as the SBU.
A member of the local council in the eastern city of Horlivka, Rybak was abducted on April 17 and driven to Slovyansk's separatist headquarters, the agency said in a statement distributed to reporters today in Kiev. He was tortured and thrown into a river on April 20.
As many as 1,300 separatists are involved in securing control over government buildings in the Donetsk region, Ukraine's security service said. Government authorities have arrested or detained 21 Russian agents, including three intelligence officers being held and questioned in Kiev, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, the SBU's chief, said during an online discussion sponsored by the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
_ With assistance from Stepan Kravchenko in Donetsk, Ksenia Galouchko, Vladimir Kuznetsov, Jason Corcoran, Henry Meyer and Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow, Nicole Gaouette, Sandrine Rastello, Roger Runningen and Gopal Ratnam in Washington, Alexandria Baca in New York, Kateryna Choursina and Julianna Goldman in Kiev, Aaron Eglitis in Riga, Jake Rudnitsky in Kharkiv, Katie Linsell in Madrid, Andras Gergely in Budapest, Krystof Chamonikolas in Prague, Boris Groendahl in Vienna and Jones Hayden in Brussels.