Armed pro-Russia separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk rejected Kyiv's offer of amnesty for those who seized government buildings this week and called on others to defy the pro-European government in Kyiv.
Protesters wearing bullet-proof vests and armed with Kalashnikov rifles, pistols and other guns inside the security building in Luhansk, a former KGB headquarters, said they would only lay down their weapons if Kyiv agreed to hold a referendum on the future of the region.
“We demand concretely a referendum on federalization so that the will of the people is heard,” said Aleksei Kolekin, one of the protest leaders barricaded in the five-story building said.
The demands, which echo the steps taken in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea before it declared independence and was annexed by Russia, have been rejected by Kyiv, which says the occupations are part of a Russia-orchestrated plan to dismember the country.
The U.S., too, has accused Russia of stoking the unrest.
Pointing to "overwhelming evidence" of Moscow's involvement, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told a congressional panel Wednesday the building seizures in eastern Ukraine were "very carefully orchestrated, well-planned, well-targeted" moves. She warned of consequences if the "aggressive actions" go unchecked.
US and Germany commend Ukraine's efforts
President Barack Obama spoke Thursday with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel about the situation in eastern Ukraine. Both leaders again called for Russia to move its troops back from the border region.
They also discussed issues relating to the forthcoming meeting of the Ukrainian, Russian, and U.S. foreign ministers and EU High Representative, commended the Ukrainian government’s efforts to move forward on constitutional reform, decentralization, and democratic elections and emphasized the importance of the international community’s strong financial support for Ukraine
Planned 'quartet' meeting
In an effort to de-escalate the situation, top diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the EU and the U.S. hope to hold talks in Geneva next Thurday, European diplomats say.
Moscow has said it wants to know more about the agenda for such a meeting, and while no more details were immediately available, EU diplomats said the talks will go forward.
The EU's foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton will brief most of the bloc's foreign ministers on the talks on Monday, said the diplomats, who declined to be named.
“We need to keep the channel for dialogue open, even as we consider further sanctions,” one diplomat said. “The solution to the crisis is through negotiation.”
Both the EU and the U.S. have already imposed targeted sanctions on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea last month.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by telephone this week that the four-way talks must focus on fostering dialogue among Ukrainians and not on bilateral relations among the participants.
NATO unveils satellite images
NATO today released satellite imagery showing details of the some of the 40,000 troops it says Russia has massed along its border with Ukraine.
The images include pictures of long lines of tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and aircraft.
NATO has spotted Russian forces at more than 100 different sites close to Ukraine’s border, said an alliance official.
An official in the Russian military general staff said on Thursday that the images released by NATO were taken in August 2013, state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported.
Earlier Thursday, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen called on Russia to pull back its troops from the Ukrainian border if it wants to start dialogue over the crisis there.
Speaking during a visit to Prague, he said that any further military action by Russia would lead to grave consequences and severe economic sanctions.
Moscow dismissed Western concerns as “groundless,” and said Rasmussen was being confrontational and not offering “any constructive agenda” for Ukraine.
“The constant accusations against us by the secretary general convince us that the alliance is trying to use the crisis in Ukraine to rally its ranks in the face of an imaginary external threat to NATO members and to strengthen demand for the alliance... in the 21st century,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Putin calls for gas talks
President Vladimir Putin has told European leaders a dispute over Ukraine's $2.2 billion gas debt to Russia could affect supplies of Russian gas to Europe and proposed urgent discussions on the matter.
In a letter, Putin said that Ukraine's growing debt and non-payment is forcing Russia to institute an "advance payment" system for gas delieveries.
Acknowledging the exreme nature of the measure, Putin warned that it "increases the risk of siphoning off natural gas passing through Ukraine's territory and heading to European consumers," said Putin.
Calling for urgent consultations on the matter, Putin said that Russia was willing to do its part to stabilize and restore Ukraine's economy, however, "not in a unilateral way, but on equal conditions with our European partners."
Meanwhile, the United States on Thursday said it condemned Russian efforts to use energy as a “tool of coercion” in its dispute with Ukraine, criticizing the current price Moscow charges Kyiv for natural gas as inflated and higher than for European customers.
“We condemn Russia's efforts to use energy as a tool of coercion against Ukraine,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Thursday.
She also pledged U.S. support for Kyiv.
“The United States is taking immediate steps to assist Ukraine, including the provision of emergency finance, technical assistance in the areas of energy security, energy efficiency, energy sector reform,” said Psaki.
Russia suspended from Council of Europe
Russia was suspended from the parliamentary assembly of European human rights watchdog the Council of Europe on Thursday, in protest over Moscow's behavior towards Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
The 18 Russian parliamentarians who were suspended will not be able to vote in the 318-head assembly, have representation in its main committees or take part in its election observation missions.
But the body, whose members come from 47 European states, stopped short of withdrawing the Russian delegates’ rights for good, arguing that would not help efforts to resolve the biggest crisis between the West and Russia since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Torture alleged in Crimea
A Ukrainian activist said on Thursday he was abducted and tortured by a pro-Russia group in Crimea in an 11-day ordeal before being released in a prisoner swap last month.
Andriy Shchekun spoke to reporters in Vienna on the sidelines of a conference on torture hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation's human rights arm, after being introduced by U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, Daniel Baer.
Shchekun said his captors had stripped him naked, shot him with air guns, beat him, attached electrodes to his body and threatened to cut off his ear as the price for getting back a cross he was wearing when snatched on March 9.
Mikhail Sheremet, commander of the Crimean “self-defense” force that Shchekun claims to have been tortured by, said he had not heard of the case and dismissed accusations of torture as "complete nonsense."
Some reporting by Reuters.