Kharkiv, Ukraine (CNN, April 15, 2014) — An “anti-terrorist operation” is under way in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region against pro-Russia protesters, Kiev declared on Tuesday, with armored personnel carriers seen on the road in the restive area.
Twenty-four hours after a Ukrainian ultimatum expired for the protesters to lay down their arms, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told Parliament the operation would be “conducted step by step, responsibly, cautiously.”
“The aim of these actions is to protect the citizens of Ukraine, to stop terror, to stop criminality, to stop attempts to tear Ukraine to pieces,” he said.
Tensions have soared in recent days in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have seized government and police buildings in as many as 10 towns and cities. Russia declared its neighbor was on the brink of a civil war.
A Monday morning deadline set by Turchynov for protesters to disarm or face action by Ukraine’s armed forces passed without any sign it was heeded. But Ukrainian forces now appear to be on the move en masse toward the region.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Evgen Rojenyuk, confirmed a National Guard battalion made up of 350 troops was sent to the Donetsk region from Kiev on Tuesday morning.
The deployment was also confirmed by the deputy head of Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry, Mykola Velychkovych, though he would not confirm the numbers involved, where the battalion was headed, or what orders it would be given. He said the ministry would decide on a plan of action once the troops arrive in eastern Ukraine.
The National Guard troops — many of them former street protesters who signed up after the interim government took power in February — have had only a few weeks of training.
A CNN team in eastern Ukraine encountered a large Ukrainian military column traveling on roads leading from the city of Donetsk toward other towns in the region.
The column included more than 20 armored personnel carriers, along with support vehicles, and a helicopter circled overhead. The troops, who were carrying the Ukrainian flag, appeared to be headed north and east, although their precise destination was unclear.
The pro-Russian mayor of Slaviansk claimed Tuesday that a Ukrainian military convoy including troops and armored vehicles had now surrounded the town, Russian state news agency ITAR-Tass reported.
“If they try to move in, we will have to stop them,” it quoted him saying.
Pro-Russian protesters seized a police building over the weekend in Slaviansk, some 100 miles from the border with Russia.
From a hill overlooking the town, a CNN team saw no obvious signs of a large-scale operation, such as military helicopters or planes.
Earlier, police in Kramatorsk, a town to the north of the Donetsk region, appeared to have taken back control of a police headquarters from pro-Russian activists. The City Council building was still occupied, however.
Turchynov’s office later added Ukrainian special forces were in control of an airfield in the town — where witnesses had earlier said they had heard planes flying overhead and gunfire.
In other signs of movement, amateur video footage posted to YouTube on Tuesday purportedly showed a Ukrainian military column, made up of trucks followed by tanks, that is believed to be pushing through the Donetsk region. CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of the video.
Another unverified amateur video clip posted on YouTube shows a Ukrainian military tank, also believed to be in the Donetsk region. People who appear to be civilians approach the lone tank to ask its crew, “Why have you come? … Are you here to kill us?” No violence occurs.
Amid the unfolding crisis, Ukraine’s most senior security and defense officials are to meet for a closed session with all members of Parliament on Wednesday morning, Turchynov said.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave a gloomy assessment.
“Blood has been shed in Ukraine again. The country is on the threshold of a civil war,” he said on his Facebook page, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.