WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration imposed sanctions Friday on several pro-Russian separatist leaders in Ukraine, including self-proclaimed rebel mayors, governors and commanders in chief of cities under siege, for refusing to cede to the central government in Kiev. The sanctions came as U.S. officials renewed accusations that Russia is providing the separatists with tanks and heavy weaponry and as Ukraine's president announced a unilateral ceasefire that Washington urged Moscow to support.
The penalties on seven separatists were intended as a signal that the U.S. will continue to punish those it holds responsible for instability in Ukraine and that the West was still prepared to slap tougher sanctions on Russia's economic sectors to punish it for stoking unrest in Ukraine should Moscow not take steps to de-escalate the crisis, the officials said.
The White House and State Department welcomed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's ceasefire announcement even as they denounced Russia for supplying separatists with military gear. White House spokesman Josh Earnest called reports of a new Russian military buildup near the Ukraine border "troubling" and dismissed explanations from the Kremlin that the movement of security forces is related to border security.
"We will not accept any use of Russian military forces, under any pretext, in eastern Ukraine," Earnest said. He also slammed Russian officials for making what he said were false claims about the Ukrainian government being responsible for poor human rights conditions in eastern Ukraine.
"We see these statements for what they are: an attempt to create pretext for further illegal Russia intervention in Ukraine," he said. "In fact, responsibility for the deterioration in the human rights situation in Ukraine lies with the armed separatists who are targeting the population, and their backers in Russia."
President Barack Obama spoke by phone Friday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been a key interlocutor with Russian President Vladimir, and separately with French President Francois Hollande. The White House said the leaders all praised Poroshenko's ceasefire, and agreed that Russia's failure to take immediate steps to calm tensions would result in further penalties from the U.S. and the European Union — a threat the West has been making for months.
Washington last week accused Russia of sending three tanks and several rocket launchers to the separatists and, at the State Department on Friday, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. believes Russia is preparing to send in more tanks and artillery from a site in southwest Russia.
"We have information that additional tanks have been prepared for departure from this same deployment site," she said. "We also have information that Russia has accumulated artillery at a deployment site in southwest Russia, including a type of artillery utilized by Ukrainian forces but no longer in Russia's active forces and believe Russia may soon provide this equipment to separatist fighters."
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