Russia said it detained 25 Ukrainian citizens suspected of plotting terror attacks on its territory after Ukraine accused Russian forces of playing a role in violence this year that cost more than 100 lives.
The detentions were made based on information that members of Pravyi Sektor, an umbrella group that unites the majority of Ukraine’s nationalist protesters, planned to carry out “sabotage and terrorist acts” in seven Russian regions, the Federal Security Agency, or FSB, said yesterday, according to a statement cited by the state-run RIA Novosti new service. An official at the FSB’s press center, who didn’t give his name, declined to comment by phone today.
The moves signal a new low in relations between the two neighbors after Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea last month. President Vladimir Putin has parliamentary approval to deploy the armed forces in Ukraine to protect the rights of Russian-speakers and those of Russian heritage, with thousands of troops massed along Ukraine’s eastern border.
“I think a fairly serious escalation in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, and I think significant,” Timothy Ash, an economist in London for emerging markets at Standard Bank Group Ltd., said about the detentions by e-mail. “All this comes as NATO and Russia are exchanging vary barbed comments, and Russian-Western relations have perhaps reached a low point in the post-Soviet era, perhaps worse than the spat over Kosovo.”
Russian security services believe the Ukrainian suspects were planning terror attacks during March 14-16, according to NTV television, which was the first to report the detentions yesterday. NTV is owned by Gazprom-Media, an arm of the state-controlled gas monopoly OAO Gazprom.
The suspects said under questioning that they spied on Russia’s military at the behest of Ukraine’s security services, RIA cited the FSB as saying in the statement. The FSB is the main successor to the Soviet KGB.
Ukraine hasn’t been officially informed about the detentions and the reports could be untrue, Interfax-Ukraine reported, citing Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema.
Hours before the FSB’s disclosure, Ukraine’s State Security Service head Valentyn Nalyvaychenko accused Russia of sending special forces and shipping explosives to Ukraine. The Kremlin-backed ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in February, deployed snipers to target anti-government demonstrators, Nalyvaychenko told reporters.
Twelve former officers from Ukraine’s Berkut riot police division have been detained in relation to protesters’ deaths, with three arrested, Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitsky told the same news conference.
Ukraine’s State Security Service, known as the SBU, yesterday said two Russian nationals were detained in the western Lviv region two days ago. Carrying explosives and ammunition, they are suspected of planning to kidnap several Ukrainian citizens, including a presidential candidate, according to the statement.
Yanukovych has denied involvement in the deaths of those killed by snipers. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the accusations yesterday.
“I can’t judge how much the statements are verified and substantiated,” Lavrov told reporters in Moscow, responding to a question about Berkut’s alleged involvement. Even so, “they contradict the vast bulk of evidence to the contrary.”
The suspects detained by Russia, including three members of Pravyi Sektor, are believed to be involved in planning attacks in the Rostov, Volgograd, Tver, Orel and Belgorod regions, as well as the Republics of Kalmykia and Tatarstan, according to RIA.
Andriy Tarasenko, Pravyi Sektor’s deputy head, said by phone that he knew nothing about the detentions. Artem Skoropadsky, a spokesman for Pravyi Sektor, called the statements “lies and propaganda,” according to Interfax.
Pravyi Sektor, which is led by Dmytro Yarosh, urged the interim Ukrainian government on March 16 to prepare for war if the conflict with Russia escalates. Last month, Russia’s Investigative Committee opened criminal cases against several Ukrainian citizens including Yarosh, who is running as an independent candidate in May presidential elections, for their alleged involvement in fighting Russian federal troops on the side of Chechen insurgents in 1994-1995.
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