KIEV: Thirty-eight people died in an arson attack against a trade union building in Ukraine’s southern city of Odessa late Friday, after a day of violent clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian militants, according to officials.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, which spoke of a “criminal arson attack,” said 30 of those killed were asphyxiated by smoke and eight died trying to escape by jumping out of windows.
Earlier, clashes between the pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters killed four people – the first eruption of violence in the south after weeks of mounting unrest in Ukraine’s east, and the bloodiest day since Kiev’s Western-backed government took power.
The U.S. threatened to hit Russia with devastating new sanctions within three weeks if it continued its “destabilization” of Ukraine, where authorities struck pro-Moscow rebels.
Intensifying the war of words that has characterized the monthslong crisis, Obama threatened to expand punitive sanctions to broad sections of the Russian economy if Moscow continued to foment chaos in the former Soviet Republic ahead of planned May 25 presidential polls.
“If in fact we see the disruptions and the destabilization continuing so severely that it impedes elections on May 25, we will not have a choice but to move forward with additional ... severe sanctions,” Obama said at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Previously the administration has said such measures would only come into force if Russia sent its 40,000 troops on the border into Ukraine.
As Obama was speaking, a meeting of the U.N. Security Council took place at Russia’s request, to complain about the Ukraine’s army’s assault on the flashpoint town of Slavyansk that claimed at least seven lives.
The Kremlin said the raid was “leading Ukraine toward catastrophe” and pronounced dead a peace deal struck in Geneva last month to ease the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev urged the Western-backed leaders in Kiev to “stop killing their citizens,” saying the raid was “a sign of criminal helplessness.”
Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said “many rebels” had been killed in the military’s pre-dawn raid on the eastern town of Slavyansk and confirmed the loss of two servicemen after insurgents shot down two helicopter gunships.
Rebels later said three of their number and two citizens were killed in what they said was a “full-scale attack.” They vowed to defend the town, which has become the epicenter of tensions in increasingly volatile eastern Ukraine.
Kiev said its military overran nine rebel checkpoints and scores of soldiers, backed by armored vehicles and helicopters, appeared to entrench their positions, tightening their encirclement of the flashpoint town.
The attack seemed to dash hopes of a quick release of seven European monitors being held in Slavyansk, with one senior rebel leader saying it would result in a “delay.”
Deepening the day’s violence, at least four people were also killed in the south, in the port city of Odessa, where pro-Russian militants clashed with 1,500 people holding a rally for Ukrainian unity.