Kiev, By Katherine Haddon (AFP)
Ukraine accused Russia of shelling from across the border Friday, stepping up tensions as US Vice-President Joe Biden visited Kiev on the first anniversary of mass protests which triggered a year of turmoil.
On a frantic day of diplomacy, Ukraine’s leaders also announced the formation of a five-party parliamentary coalition involving the groupings of President Petro Poroshenko, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and former premier Yulia Tymoshenko.
The coalition will, for the first time, be strong enough to pass amendments to the constitution and comes after elections in October.
Ukraine’s government hopes Biden will use his visit to announce further US assistance for its forces, locked in a drawn-out struggle with pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The US has so far limited its support to non-lethal security assistance but Kiev wants it to go further and offer weapons and ammunition.
As Biden met Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk, Kiev claimed that shelling was taking place from across the Russian border for the first time since a tattered ceasefire was signed in September.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that in the past day, artillery was fired at a border post in Lugansk region from the direction of Manotsky in Russia’s Rostov region.
In Kiev, dozens of people gathered at the iconic Independence Square, known locally as Maidan, laying flowers at shrines to the more than 100 people who died in protests that started on November 21 last year.
Some mourners wept or crossed themselves as they remembered the dead while others said fresh protests were needed to bring real change to Ukraine, where corruption is rife.
Petro Runkiv, a 58-year-old civil engineer, left his wife, children and grandchildren in western Ukraine to join the protests last year.
“Of course, we are disappointed. Nothing changed,” he said. “We need reforms and we are here to let our government know that we are ready for one more Maidan.”
The protests started last year after then president Viktor Yanukovych suddenly scrapped a deal for closer ties with Europe.
– Shouts of ‘Shame!’ –
They eventually led to his ousting in February which prompted Moscow to seize Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and later triggered separatist unrest in the industrial east which has killed more than 4,300 people since mid-April.
Poroshenko was heckled by relatives of the Maidan dead shouting “Shame!” over authorities’ failure to convict anyone in connection with the deaths when he laid a candle at the shrines Friday.
He and Biden had been due to lay a wreath at the memorials together but instead met up nearby and shook hands before the US vice-president went into a meeting with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
During his visit, the US vice-president is expected to try to shore up a tattered ceasefire in the east, which has been in place since September 5 but failed to prevent almost 1,000 people from dying in fighting since, according to the United Nations.
– ‘Strong’ support from US –
One more Ukrainian soldier and two civilians were killed in the region in the last 24 hours, Ukrainian security officials said Friday.
Yatsenyuk said Thursday he hoped for an announcement on further US assistance to Ukraine during Biden’s visit following a $53 million (42 million euro) package announced in September, which included $46 million of security assistance.
That included non-lethal military equipment such as night vision goggles, body armour and radios. But Kiev wants Washington to provide lethal assistance.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters Thursday that the US was “still focused on non-lethal assistance right now”.
Russia has warned against the US arming Ukrainian forces, with the secretary of Russia’s national security council, Nikolai Patrushev, saying the conflict in eastern Ukraine “will grow” if this happened.
The Kremlin denies Western and Ukrainian accusations that it is backing the rebels with troops and military equipment, but diplomatic relations have plunged to a low not seen since the Cold War over the seven-month conflict.
In an interview with Kiev’s The Day newspaper published Thursday, Biden said: “I will be bringing a strong message of support to the Ukrainian people and government.”