Ukrainian border guards stand on guard at a base close to the Russian border near Donetsk earlier this week. The Ukrainian border service said Thursday it was introducing more stringent conditions on Russians. Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters
"Grotesque" leaflets distributed in eastern Ukraine demanding Jewish people register with local authorities were condemned by the U.S. on Thursday.
Speaking in Geneva after top diplomats from the U.S., European Union, Russia and Ukraine reached agreement on steps to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine, Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the leaflets, as well as other instances of religious intolerance that are inflaming the crisis in Ukraine.
"In the year 2014, after all of the miles travelled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable; it's grotesque," Kerry told reporters.
"It is beyond unacceptable. And any of the people who engage in these kinds of activities, from whatever party or whatever ideology or whatever place they crawl out of, there is no place for that. "
Kerry also denounced apparent threats to members of the Russian Orthodox Church from members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He noted that the agreement signed on Thursday "strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism."
In Washington, U.S. officials said the anti-Semitic leaflets, which recall the days of czarist pogroms and Nazi-era persecution of Jews, have appeared recently in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. The State Department said it was looking into who is responsible but said it took the threat seriously no matter who was behind the leaflets.
The leaflets seen by U.S. officials purport to come from the Donetsk People's Republic, a self-styled, unrecognized breakaway authority that seeks to join Russia. The Donetsk Republic press office denied any involvement in the matter and says the leaflets are fake.
Peaceful demonstrations held in 4 cities
Meanwhile, Ukrainian unity was on display Thursday evening as peaceful demonstrations were held in at least four eastern cities condemning Russia for its perceived meddling in Ukrainian affairs.
At the Donetsk rally, which drew a few thousand people, the crowd listened to speeches condemning Russia and resisting the pro-Russian movement that is pushing for autonomy for eastern Ukraine.
Similar rallies were held in Luhansk, Mariupol and Kramatorsk. Key government buildings have been occupied by pro-Russian groups in all four cities. Political developments in eastern Ukraine have for weeks been dominated by a small, vocal and recently armed opposition to the interim government in Kiev.
Parliamentary deputy Oleh Lyashko, who is running for office in the May 25 presidential election, rejected charges that Russian-speakers in the east had been subject to any discrimination. He also said the armed groups active in the seizures of buildings would not prevail.
"Let those who have weapons be afraid of us, we will fight back. Let the ones who want to split up our country be afraid, because we won't allow them to do it," Lyashko said.
Hromadske television reported that police in Kramatorsk managed to thwart an attempt by pro-Russian activist to attack a pro-unity rally of about 500 people.
Pro-Russian group attacks Black Sea base
Overnight Wednesday, three people were killed and 12 injured after a mob of 300 pro-Russian protesters armed with stun grenades and firebombs tried to seize a National Guard base in the Black Sea port city of Mariupol.
Ukraine's Interior Ministry said shots fired by servicemen in the base initially proved insufficient to deter the mob. There were no casualties among Ukrainian servicemen, the ministry said. At least 63 people involved in the attack were detained, but local media cited police as saying 38 were later released.
APTN footage filmed outside the base on Wednesday night showed an unidentified man coming out to speak to the armed masked men, who said they wanted no bloodshed. A short while later, however, a crowd of mainly masked young men armed with bats and sticks began throwing Molotov cocktails at the base's gate and the trucks parked in front of it. Sounds of gunfire were heard in response.
One soldier involved in the battle, a 20-year old conscript who gave his name only as Stanislav, said troops were forced to act in self-defence.
"We were attacked by unidentified people and we didn't want to shoot, but they were behaving aggressively," he told the AP. "At first we fired in the air, but they continued advancing."
One protester admitted to a hospital with a bullet wound to the stomach said soldiers opened fire on them while they were attempting to force open the gates.
"We just threw Molotov cocktails to light the way," said Sergei Shevchenko, a 40-year-old businessman from Donetsk.
Residents were divided about the night's events.
"Russia isn't just exporting oil and gas, but also terrorism," said 43-year-old resident Yevgeny Nechiporenko.
Yet passers-by berated Nechiporenko as he spoke, with one accusing him of being an "agent of the West."
"We are willing to give up our lives so long as we don't have to serve the fascists from Kyiv," said resident Anna Govorko.
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