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Ukraine Parliament Approves New Defense Chief

  • VOA News

Ukraine's parliament has approved a new defense minister - the fourth change in leadership since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March.

The head of Ukraine's National Guard, Stepan Poltorak, will take over for Valeriy Heletey, who resigned amid heavy criticism for the crushing defeat of Ukrainian forces east of Donetsk in late August.

Also on Tuesday, Ukraine's parliament voted in sweeping laws to stamp out corruption and curb Soviet-era state surveillance of political life.

The legislation moving through parliament is aimed at cleaning up Ukraine's profile and raising the post-Soviet country to European standards.

The new laws, which will tackle high-level corruption and reform the prosecutor general's office, have been sought by the European Union with which Ukraine has signed an association agreement as part of its post-Yanukovich European agenda.

Clashes with protesters

Meanwhile, clashes broke out between a few thousand demonstrators and police in front of Ukraine's parliament in Kyiv as deputies inside repeatedly voted down proposals to recognize a contentious World War II-era Ukrainian partisan group as national heroes.

The demonstrators threw stones and smoke bombs and fired air guns through the building's windows, forcing parliamentary deputies inside to go into recess because of the disorder outside.

Thousands of Svoboda nationalist party supporters rallied earlier Tuesday in the capital in celebration of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, whose struggle for independence for Ukraine was tainted by its collaboration with the Nazis.

Party members had urged parliamentary deputies to give special status to the World War Two fighters, a move that was repeatedly voted down on Tuesday.

Later, masked men attacked and threw smoke grenades at lines of police outside parliament as lawmakers met inside.

The Interior Ministry said 36 people were detained by police.

Svoboda said its members were not responsible for the unrest, which police said was orchestrated by a small group of people at the rally.

The clashes are the first real anti-government demonstrations since the “Euromaidan” upheaval last winter spelled potential for disorder in the run-up to the election on Oct. 26.

President Petro Poroshenko wants a calm run-up to an election that he hopes will give his government further legitimacy and produce a broad platform to end a separatist conflict in the east and pursue his pro-Europe agenda.

Fighting continues in East Ukraine

The battlefield losses at Ilovaisk, east of Donetsk at the end of August, forced Poroshenko to abandon attempts to crush the separatists and he called a cease-fire on September 5.

The cease-fire forms the core of his peace plan that would also provide provisional self-rule to the separatists.

But the agreement is increasingly under pressure as fighting continues in eastern Ukraine.

A military spokesman said on Tuesday that seven more Ukrainian servicemen were killed in the past 24 hours - six of them killed in two landmine explosions - bringing to about 50 the number of Ukrainian troops killed since the cease-fire came into force.

Before talks Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would not meet "bogus demands" for lifting U.S. and European sanctions levied against Russia during the Ukraine crisis.

Lavrov called for the countries that imposed the trade restrictions to lift them unilaterally.

On Sunday, Putin ordered more than 17,000 troops to withdraw from an area near the Ukrainian border as he prepares to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko later in the week on the sidelines of an Asia-Europe summit later this week in Milan.

Russia has consistently denied the presence of its troops in Ukraine, while separatist rebel leaders say they have been helped by Russian soldiers.

VOA's Scott Stearns contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from Reuters and AP.

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