DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Turning to force to try to restore its authority in the vital industrial east, Ukraine's government announced Sunday it was sending in troops to try to quash an increasingly brazen pro-Russian insurgency, despite repeated warnings from the Kremlin.
Accusing Moscow of fomenting the unrest, Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said in a televised address that such a "large-scale anti-terrorist operation" would ensure Russia did not "repeat the Crimean scenario in Ukraine's east." Turchynov pledged to offer amnesty to anyone surrendering their weapons by Monday morning.
Reliance on the military is a response that hints at concerns over the reliability of the police, who have often proven unable or unwilling to repel pro-Russian gunmen and other Moscow loyalists from seizing key state facilities. With tens of thousands of Russian troops massed along Ukraine's eastern border, there are fears that Moscow might use unrest in the mainly Russian-speaking region as a pretext for an invasion.
Speaking late Sunday on Russian state television, ousted president Viktor Yanukovych accused the CIA of being behind the new government's decision to turn to force, a claim the CIA denied as "completely false."
Yanukovych claimed that CIA director John Brennan met with Ukraine's new leadership and "in fact sanctioned the use of weapons and provoked bloodshed."
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said that while the agency doesn't comment on Brennan's travel itinerary, the "claim that director Brennan encouraged Ukrainian authorities to conduct tactical operations inside Ukraine is completely false."
Ukraine now has "one foot into a civil war," Yanukovych declared, flanked by his former prosecutor general and interior minister, the two associates most despised by the protesters whose monthslong demonstrations were ignited by Yanukovych's decision to back away from closer relations with the European Union and turn toward Russia. Yanukovych fled to Russia in February, saying he feared for his life.
Earlier Sunday, Ukrainian special forces exchanged gunfire with a pro-Russia militia outside the eastern city of Slovyansk — the first reported gunbattle in the east, where armed pro-Russian men have seized a number of key government buildings to press their demands for referendums on autonomy and possible annexation by Russia, following the pattern set by the vote in Crimea last month. A Ukrainian security officer was killed and at least two others wounded.
Calling such attacks a "Russian aggression," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a Facebook post Sunday that special forces of up to 12,000 people will be drawn from volunteers who will be tasked with resisting attacks from pro-Russian forces in their local areas.
Russia's Foreign Ministry was quick to dismiss Turchynov's decree as "criminal" and accused Ukrainian officials of using radical neo-Nazi forces.
In an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council late Sunday, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin denied claims that Moscow was behind the violence.
"It is the West that will determine the opportunity to avoid civil war in Ukraine. Some people, including in this chamber, do not want to see the real reasons for what is happening in Ukraine and are constantly seeing the hand of Moscow in what is going on," Churkin said.
In response, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said, "These are not protests, these are professional military operations."
Unrest has spread to several municipalities in eastern Ukraine, including the major industrial city of Donetsk, which has a large Russian-speaking population and was the support base for Yanukovych. Ethnic Russians in Ukraine's east widely fear that the new pro-Western Ukrainian government will suppress them.
Several town halls and other government buildings were occupied by crowds of supporters of the referendum drive to give eastern regions wide powers of autonomy.
A police station and the local security services headquarters in Slovyansk, some 90 miles (150 kilometers) west of the Russian border, were the latest to fall to storming Saturday by well-armed and effectively coordinated militia. Both were still in the hands of gunmen Sunday, despite a government drive to retake them.