April 16 - Ukrainian government forces and separatist pro-Russian militia stage rival shows of force in eastern Ukraine on the eve of crucial talks on the country's future. Mana Rabiee reports.
In Ukraine's eastern city of Slaviansk, a show of force. Pro-Russian separatist militias rumbled in on Wednesday. The Russian flag waving high. The rebel convoy stopped at town hall, where armed separatists have barricaded themselves, demanding a referendum on independence and closer ties to neighboring Russia. (SOUNDBITE) (Russian) PRO-RUSSIAN ACTIVIST IN MOTORCYCLE HELMET WITH RUSSIAN ST. GEORGE RIBBON, IGOR, SAYING: "There were a lot of people supporting us here. They're great guys. We're grateful to them, their support can't be overestimated. They were bringing warm clothes, food, everything." More Moscow-backed gunmen have captured government buildings across ten eastern cities. This, as Russia maintains some 40,000 troops near Ukraine's border. The central government in Kiev launched an offensive on Tuesday to regain control but there's been little actual action. It wants to reassert control slowly and without bloodshed. Moscow, which doesn't recognize Ukraine's newly-formed government, says the country is on the brink of civil war. But Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk blames Moscow for fueling the rhetoric. (SOUNDBITE) (Ukrainian) ARSENY YATSENIUK, PRIME MINISTER OF UKRAINE, SAYING: "As far as I understand, the Russian Federation has a new product for export. Besides exporting oil and gas, Russia has started exporting terrorism to Ukraine." High level talks on the country's future are scheduled in Geneva on Thursday. It'll be the first time Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers meet in the presence of the U.S. and the European Union. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, while in Vietnam, said Kiev should listen to the 'voice of the people' and avoid force. (SOUNDBITE) (Russian) SERGEI LAVROV, FOREIGN MINISTER OF RUSSIA, SAYING: "Ukrainians must, themselves, come to an agreement because the origins of the crisis lie deep within the Ukrainian state itself, and not conduct talks with political forces of other regions. Otherwise, there will be no way out of the crisis." The divisions may be deep. Not everyone in the east wants to secede from Ukraine. For some, it's simply an issue of more local autonomy. (SOUNDBITE) (Russian) SLAVIANSK RESIDENT, VITALY, SAYING: "To tell you the truth I am for a united Ukraine, of course, but I would like to have a federation, so that our regions would be given more rights." On the eve of crucial talks, NATO is taking immediate steps to reinforce its presence in eastern Europe. The military alliance is deploying forces by land, sea and air, it said on Wednesday, in direct reaction to the crisis in Ukraine.