Casualty numbers used as a weapon in Ukraine crisis

Casualty numbers used as a weapon in Ukraine crisis

UKRAINE - Around 6:00 p.m. local time on Tuesday, Vladimir Maximovich heard the news that was ricocheting around Russian media and online: at least four pro-Russian activists had been killed and others wounded by Ukrainian troops at an airfield near the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk.

As the head of the emergency unit at the city's public hospital, he got ready to receive the injured and treat them. They never showed up. "We were sitting here, all of us, and waiting. We heard about the trouble at the airfield, so we were ready. But nobody came," he told Reuters on Wednesday. "I called my colleague at the surgery unit: also nothing." The doctor had just witnessed a phenomenon that is growing familiar in the crisis over Ukraine: a dramatic assertion in Russian media about wrongdoing perpetrated by Kiev's Western-backed rulers against pro-Russian protesters, which later turns out, at best, to be based only loosely on fact.

It is an issue that has far-reaching implications. Twice in the past six years - in ex-Soviet Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula earlier this year - Russia has sent its troops into a neighbouring country, arguing that it had to act to protect its Russian kin from violence.

That shadow hovers now over Ukraine, where armed pro-Russian separatists have seized buildings in around 10 towns and the Kremlin says Moscow has the right to intervene to protect Russian speakers if there is violence.

Russia has massed thousands of troops on its border with Ukraine. It says they are on routine exercises but Kiev and some of its Western allies call it an invasion force waiting for a pretext to advance.

In what appears to have been the bloodiest incident so far, Kiev said on Thursday three separatists were killed while trying to storm a national guard base in the eastern port of Mariupol overnight.

Ukraine has so far taken only limited action against the separatists. An operation by paratroops to retake some territory ended in disarray on Wednesday when rebels seized six of their armoured vehicles and another column surrendered the firing pins of their rifles and retreated rather than open fire.

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