Ukraine Rebels Ask to Join Russia as Fighters Free Leader

Ukrainian insurgents stormed a post on the border with Russia to free a rebel leader detained by frontier guards and reiterated their intention to join Russia after they stayed away from national talks to solve the crisis.

Alexander Boroday, the leader of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” said it will ask to split from Ukraine and join its eastern neighbor in the near future, Ostrov newswire reported today. Following May 11 referendums on secession, the separatists have declared the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk independent and have vowed to “burn and wipe out” government forces there if they don’t withdraw.

“We’re going to do all of this very urgently,” Ostrov quoted Boroday as saying in remarks on the region’s request to join Ukraine’s former Soviet master in an echo of Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula Crimea in March.

The separatists’ plea coincides with intensifying violence in Ukraine’s eastern regions that is threatening to disrupt the country’s May 25 presidential election. The government in Kiev and its U.S., European Union and NATO allies have rejected the May 11 referendums as illegal and say Russia is trying to stir unrest before the national ballot. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization also says Putin has failed to withdraw 40,000 troops arrayed on Ukraine’s border.

Rebel Freed

About 200 rebels attacked the Dovzhanskyi border station today, freeing Luhansk insurgent leader Valeriy Bolotov, who’d been detained crossing from Russia, Ukraine’s border service said on its website.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry sent a letter to Russia decrying a “significant deterioration at the Russian-Ukrainian border caused by intensified activities of trans-border organized criminal groups,” the ministry said in a statement.

“Such incidents have become systematic and this is causing a real threat to the lives of civilians in areas near the border and to the Ukrainian border service,” it said.

The strike came hours before Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk met with national and regional political leaders and businessmen to discuss a way to reunify the country. The meetings participants agreed on a memorandum to be signed by Ukraine’s political parties to allow regions to elect their leaders and solve issues through referendums and make Ukraine a parliamentary-presidential republic.

Autonomy Pledge

Yatsenyuk also said the central government was willing to devolve power, give the Russian language special status and grant financial autonomy to the regions, which now receive subsidies from the central government.

“Those who shoot at people do not want peace -- there will be no talks with terrorists,” Yatsenyuk said in televised remarks from the eastern city of Kharkiv. “We have to be united here, friends. They are claiming our country, they are claiming our independence. And they will be punished.”

The U.S. and the U.K. have imposed sanctions on Russian companies and people in Putin’s inner circle and vowed to tighten them further if he doesn’t back down.

While Russia’s parliament has given Putin a green light to use his forces abroad to protect Russian speakers, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that Russia won’t send troops into eastern Ukraine and isn’t trying to foment separatist sentiment there.

“A real threat to the lives of civilians has been created,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement today. “We again insist that Kiev immediately halt military action in the southeast of Ukraine.”

Russian Objection

Russia has not commented on whether it will absorb regions in eastern Ukraine, a step its Cold War adversaries in the U.S. and Europe reject.

The fighting has not stopped a rally in Russian markets. The benchmark Micex Index of stocks added 0.8 percent yesterday, posting its third straight weekly gain, though it’s still down more than 6 percent since Putin’s Ukrainian ally Viktor Yanukovych was toppled by a popular uprising in February. Ukraine’s hryvnia fell 1.1 percent against the dollar yesterday, extending its loss this year to 31 percent.

Russia has objected to the plan to hold Ukrainian elections amid the current unrest, though it has softened its opposition in recent weeks. Lavrov signaled that Russia views Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire frontrunner in the vote, as someone it can do business with.

Rebels Defiant

The separatists hold buildings and radio and television towers in about 15 cities in in area that extends from Russia’s border to about 200 kilometers (120 miles) into Ukraine. They’ve adopted a constitution establishing the break-away state’s borders as those of the two Ukrainian regions and declaring that they can accede to a different nation. Boroday said Ukraine’s presidential ballot won’t take place there.

“As long as our territory is occupied, there will be no talks with Kiev,” Boroday said today, according to Interfax. “When the last armed man leaves our territory, then, maybe, we will receive some mediators.”

In a report this week, United Nations monitors criticized “repeated acts of violence” against protesters, mainly those in favor of Ukraine’s unity, as well as “targeted killings, torture and beatings, abductions, intimidation and some cases of sexual harassment –- mostly carried out by well-organized and well-armed anti-government groups in the east.”

Fighting Continues

Ukraine says the military operation will stop once separatist groups surrender their weapons and release hostages. Its armed forces surrounded the city of Slovyansk, the site of some of the most intense fighting, and was taking fire from insurgents in residential areas the Defense Ministry said in a statement on its website today.

Troops exchanged fire with another group of rebels at the air base in the eastern city of Kramatorsk and dispersed a crowd of several dozen civilians simultaneously trying to break into the other side of the base by shooting in the air, the ministry said.

One civilian was killed and another wounded when unknown assailants shot at their car near Luhansk, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. A woman and a seven-year-old were also wounded when gunmen opened fire at a public transport stop in the town of Makiyivka.

In the Black Sea port city of Mariupol, rebels and police agreed to end fighting under an deal brokered by Metinvest Holding LLC two days ago. More than 32,000 people have volunteered to patrol the streets and remove separatist barricades, the company said in an e-mail yesterday. Metinvest, controlled by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, runs iron and steel plants in Mariupol.

Unity Supported

A study by the Pew Research Center last month found that 70 percent of respondents in eastern Ukraine wanted the country to remain unified and keep its current borders. In the west of Ukraine, it was 93 percent, the April 5-23 poll of 1,659 people showed. It gave no margin of error.

In an echo of comments earlier this week that sparked concern in the EU that he was giving ammunition to Russian ambitions in Ukraine, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said his country would put its “full weight” behind a shift to autonomy for Ukraine’s ethnic-Hungarian population.

Orban made similar comments a week ago, prompting Ukraine to summon Hungary’s ambassador in Kiev for an explanation. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, one of Orban’s strongest EU allies, said the comments were “out of place and time” when “we’re witnessing attempts to tear Ukraine apart.”