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Pro-Russia Rebels Kill 14 Ukraine Troops as Crucial Poll Nears

Ukrainian soldiers ride atop an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) near the site where pro-Russia rebels killed Ukrainian servicemen in the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian town of Volnovakha, south of Donetsk May 22, 2014.
Ukraine's acting president says 13 service members were killed when pro-Russian separatists attacked a military checkpoint in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region.

President Oleksandr Turchnyov said Thursday the soldiers who died in the overnight attack near the town of Volnovakha "gave their lives for Ukraine."

He said the separatists attacked the checkpoint using mortars, grenade launchers and heavy automatic weapons.

Officials in the Donetsk regional administration said 16 people died in the attack, but they did not specify whether all those killed were government soldiers. They said 32 people were injured.

Another government serviceman was killed overnight in the neighboring Luhansk region.

Reacting to the latest violence and other reported incidents on Ukraine’s border with Russia, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

“We will provide proof that it is the Russian side that bears responsibility for attempts to escalate the conflict… and to undermine presidential elections,” he said at a military installation outside Kyiv.

Russia accused Kyiv of stepping up military operations in eastern Ukraine and failing to implement measures to end the crisis.
Ukrainian businessman, politician and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko (L) meets his supporters during his election rally in the city of Kryvyi Rih May 17, 2014.
Ukrainian businessman, politician and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko (L) meets his supporters during his election rally in the city of Kryvyi Rih May 17, 2014.

Confectionery magnate and former foreign minister Petro Poroshenko, 48, remains the clear front-runner in the presidential race, according to opinion polls. Some surveys suggest he could garner the more than 50 percent of votes needed to win the election in the first round.

Kyiv and Western countries hope the poll will help legitimize Ukraine’s new government following the ouster in February, after months of protests, of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych, and help stabilize the situation in the country.

The U.S. and the European Union say they will impose broader sanctions on Russia if it tries to derail the vote.

Russian troop movements

Also Thursday, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there was some Russian troop activity near the Ukrainian border that "may suggest some of these forces are preparing to withdraw."

Western countries have protested Russia's deployment of tens of thousands of troops to the area, expressing concern Russia may be preparing an invasion after annexing Crimea in March.

Russian officials have said multiple times in the past few weeks that the troops would pull back from the border.

Rasmussen said Thursday on Twitter that he hoped the troop movements were the start of a "full and genuine withdrawal," but also cautioned that most of the Russian forces remained near the border.

He called on Russia to meet its international commitments, particularly in view of Sunday’s elections in Ukraine.

NATO’s military chief, meanwhile, said that that despite the recent movements, Russian forces on Ukraine’s border remained “very large” and threatening.

“[It's] too early to know where they are moving to or how many of them are moving, but what we do know is the force that remains on the border is very large and very capable and it remains in a very coercive posture," U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told a news conference.

Meanwhile, Russia's Defense Ministry said Thursday that 20 trains and 15 planes full of troops have been moved out of the border area with Ukraine.

Russia feeling economic pressure

In another sign of the effects of Western pressure on Russia over Ukraine, many foreign investors are snubbing Moscow by boycotting a high-profile economic summit underway in St. Petersburg.

Billed as Russia’s response to the annual forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year’s event is being shunned by many major Western companies, with some having sent only lower-level executives or none at all.

In an apparent damage control effort, the Kremlin reportedly sent a confidential email to loyal and state-run news organizations advising them to accentuate the growing participation of Asian investors and the quality of discussions at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

Speaking on the sidelines of the forum, a ranking Russian official admitted that “informal” Western pressure is having an effect.

“…the informal character of the pressure, which is being exerted by the United States and countries of the European Union, it is all causing serious consequences for our economy,” said First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, according to RIA news agency.

Prince Charles ‘Hitler’ comment fallout

Meanwhile, Russia blasted Britain’s Prince Charles Thursday for reportedly likening President Vladimir Putin to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

“[For] members the of the British royal family to spread the propaganda campaign against Russia on a pressing issue - that is, the situation in Ukraine - as unacceptable, outrageous and low,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said at a news conference.

He added that Moscow was seeking an official explanation from Britain.

During a visit to Canada, in conversation with a Jewish woman who fled Poland during World War II, Prince Charles said that “Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler,” Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper reported.

Some informatino for this report provided by AFP and Reuters.