Ukraine unrest: Orthodox Easter messages show divide

Self-proclaimed Donetsk republic flag, 19 April A self-proclaimed Donetsk republic flag. Pro-Russian activists refuse to leave occupied buildings

Orthodox Easter messages from patriarchs in Kiev and Moscow have highlighted the deep division in Ukraine, where a tense stand-off is continuing in the east.

Patriarch Filaret, a Ukrainian Orthodox Church leader, accused Russia of "aggression" and "evil".

Russian Church Patriarch Kirill asked God to end the designs of those who wanted to rip apart Russia and Ukraine.

Pro-Russian activists in the east continue to occupy government offices.

Patriarch Filaret heads a Kiev church which broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate. A rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church - reckoned to have more followers - remains affiliated to Moscow and is recognised by the wider Eastern Orthodox community.

Meanwhile Russia media are reporting several deaths in a gunbattle near the eastern town of Sloviansk.

TV pictures showed what was described as the aftermath of an attack on a pro-Russian checkpoint at about 01:00 local time (22:00 on Saturday GMT), including the body of a man under a cover.

The BBC is unable to verify the footage, and it is not clear how many people were killed and injured in the incident. A Reuters journalist at the scene reported seeing two bodies in a truck.

The Russian foreign ministry blamed the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist Right Sector group for the attack.

"Russia is indignant about this provocation by gunmen, which testifies to the lack of will on the part of the Kiev authorities to rein in and disarm nationalists and extremists," it said in a statement.

A mediator from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is scheduled to hold talks with pro-Russian activists on Sunday.

Ertogrul Apakan, who heads the special OSCE mission in Kiev, said his deputy would be in Donetsk to try to get them to comply with an agreement reached on Thursday to ease the crisis.

'Resurrect Ukraine'

In his Easter message, Patriarch Filaret said: "Against our peace-loving nation, which voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons, there has been aggression, there has been injustice.

Ukraine's interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk: "President Putin has a dream to restore the Soviet Union"

"A country which guaranteed the integrity and inviolability of our territory has committed aggression. God cannot be on the side of evil, so the enemy of the Ukrainian people is condemned to defeat," he said.

"Lord, help us resurrect Ukraine."

In Moscow, Patriarch Kirill appealed for peace, saying it "should reign in the hearts and minds of our brothers and sisters by blood and by faith".

But he also said Ukraine was "spiritually and historically" at one with Russia, and he prayed for it to have authorities that were "legitimately elected".

"We are a single people before God," he said.

Ukraine's acting President, Olexander Turchynov, said in his Easter message: "We are living in a fateful time when the Ukrainian people have decisively affirmed their striving for freedom and justice."

Ukrainian Orthodox worshippers mark Easter in Donetsk, as Olga Ivshina reports

A pro-Russian activist at a captured building in Sloviansk, 19 April A pro-Russian activist at a captured building in Sloviansk

In an interview to be aired in full later on Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, Ukraine's interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to "restore the Soviet Union".

If Mr Putin succeeded, Mr Yatsenyuk says, it would be "the biggest disaster of this century".

Ukraine has been in crisis since President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled in February.

Russia then annexed the Crimean peninsula - part of Ukraine but with a Russian-speaking majority - in a move that provoked international outrage.

The annexation followed a referendum in Crimea that backed a move to join the Russian Federation.

Pro-Russian activists then occupied buildings in several eastern Ukrainian cities, many calling on Moscow to support them.

'Illegal'

Russia, Ukraine, the EU and US agreed during talks in Geneva on Thursday that illegal military groups in Ukraine must be dissolved, and that those occupying government premises must be disarmed and leave.

But the separatists' spokesman in the city of Donetsk said that the Kiev government was "illegal", and vowed they would not go until it stepped down.

Swiss envoy Christian Schoenenberger, whose country chairs the OSCE, said its monitors had spoken to some dissidents in the east.

East Ukraine map

"For the time being the political will is not there to move out," he said.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia has said that operations against the pro-Russian militants have been suspended over Easter.

Ukraine's interim authorities have appealed for national unity and promised to meet some of the demands of pro-Russian protesters.

These include the decentralisation of power and guarantees for the status of the Russian language.

But the US has warned the next few days will be pivotal and has threatened more sanctions against Russia if it fails to abide by the agreement.

US Vice-President Joe Biden is set to visit Kiev on Tuesday.

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