Ukraine clashes leave several dead and test Trump’s Russia stance

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  • Mexican Police Find 6 Kidnap Victims Dead on Roadside

Parts of east Ukraine are on the brink of a humanitarian crisis as the worst violence for a year in the conflict between Kiev and Russia-backed separatists has left up to 19 dead and thousands of people without water and heating in freezing temperatures.

The violence is an early test of Donald Trump’s stated desire for better US relations with Russia. Kiev has watched nervously as Trump has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin and floated the idea of lifting sanctions.

The conflict in Ukraine has raged for nearly three years and cost more than 10,000 lives. A ceasefire was agreed in Minsk two years ago, and although little progress has been made since on a political solution, large-scale clashes have been rareover the past year.

However, in the last few days both sides have accused the other of using Grad systems, imprecise weapons that rain down multiple rockets over a wide area.

On Wednesday the Ukrainian military said three soldiers had died overnight, and separatist authorities claimed four civilians had been killed.

In a clear sign that US policy towards Russia could indeed be heading for a sharp change of course under Trump, the state department made no criticism of Russia or the separatist side, in contrast to most of its statements in response to similar spikes in violence in the past.

The acting state department spokesman Mark Toner said the US was “deeply concerned” by the violence and called for “an immediate, sustained ceasefire”. However, the statement stopped short of apportioning blame.

Russia’s state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta excitedly noted the change in tone. “Washington is not blaming the unrecognised republics for breaking the ceasefire, is not stating any support for Kiev, is not saying a single word about the role of Russia … Different variations of these elements were, as a rule, a key part of all statements of Ukraine under Barack Obama’s administration.”

The state department statement was markedly different in tone to comments from the US mission to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe(OSCE), which is staffed by career diplomats and may be out of step with the new mood in Washington.

“Russia and the separatists initiated the violence in Avdiivka,” said the US chargé d’affaires to the OSCE, Kate Byrnes. “We call on Russia to stop the violence, honour the ceasefire, withdraw heavy weapons and end attempts to seize new territory beyond the line of contact.”

There are several rounds of US and EU sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and actions in east Ukraine. Trump has suggested it could be time to lift them, and has spoken of the potential for a grand deal with Putin. The two leaders spoke by telephone at the weekend and agreed to meet soon.

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, said during a meeting with security officials on Tuesday: “The shelling is massive. Who would dare to talk about lifting the sanctions in such circumstances?”

In the meantime, Mexican police found the bodies of six men reportedly kidnapped by an armed gang in the southern state of Guerrero, the state prosecutor said Wednesday.

State prosecutor Xavier Olea said two women who were kidnapped along with the six men were released alive. But Olea said the women “are in a state of shock, they are very afraid” and had not yet spoken to investigators.

Olea said the kidnappings were reported Monday. The bodies were apparently found Tuesday in a rural mountain community north of the resort of Acapulco, an area that has been the scene of turf battles involving drug gangs and vigilante “community police” forces.

The prosecutor said investigators had not been able to remove the bodies for autopsies or testing because vigilantes would not allow it.

Also Wednesday, the governor of the eastern Gulf state of Veracruz said three marines who disappeared Tuesday in the port city of Veracruz remained missing.

Gov. Miguel Angel Yunes said in an interview on Grupo Formula radio that military and police were working closely to search for the marines. The marines handle policing duties in the port city and Yunes said they were abducted in the Infonavit Buena Vista neighborhood.

The news outlet Milenio reported that Mexico’s navy confirmed they had been taken by force by an armed group.

Guardian with additional report from MSN