Pro-Russian Rebels Attack Key Port - At Least 30 deadPro-Russian rebels launched an offensive against the strategic port of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine on Saturday, prompting the European Union's foreign policy chief to warn of a further "grave deterioration" in EU-Russian relations.
Mariupol's city administration said the rebels had killed at least 30 people and injured 83 others in the offensive by firing rockets from long-range GRAD missile systems.
The city of 500,000 on the Sea of Azov is vital for easternUkraine's steel and grain exports and also straddles the coastal route from the Russian border to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula in southern Ukraine seized by Russia last March.
President Petro Poroshenko, pledging to protect Ukrainian territory, said he would convene an emergency meeting of his country's security council on Sunday.
"Today an offensive was launched on Mariupol. This will be the best possible monument to all our dead," Russia's RIA news agency quoted rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko as saying at a memorial ceremony in the separatist-held city of Donetsk.
He said the separatists also planned to encircle Debaltseve, a town north-east of Donetsk, in the next few days, Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
Eastern Ukraine has seen an escalation of fighting in recent days that Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed on Kiev. The rebels have ruled out more peace talks.
Poroshenko responded angrily to the fighting in Mariupol, a city the rebels tried to capture last autumn before a fragile ceasefire was agreed in eastern Ukraine. Kiev fears the rebels want to build a land bridge from Russia to Crimea.
"We are for peace, but we accept the challenge of the enemy. We will protect our motherland," Poroshenko said in a statement.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini condemned the Mariupol attack and urged Moscow to lean on the rebel leaders.
"I ... call openly upon Russia to use its considerable influence over separatist leaders and to stop any form of military, political or financial support," she said.
Moscow denies sending forces and weapons to east Ukraine, despite what Kiev and the West say is irrefutable proof. Last week Poroshenko said Russia had 9,000 troops stationed in his country and demanded their immediate withdrawal.
The nine-month conflict, in which more than 5,000 people have been killed, has triggered the biggest crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Saturday's attack on Mariupol started in the early morning, said pensioner Leonid Vasilenko, 76, who lives in an eastern suburb of the city.
President Barack Obama, having decided to cut short the third day of his India visit, will arrive in Riyadh Tuesday, Jan. 27 with the First Lady, to offer US condolences on the death of King Abdullah and hold critical talks with his successor, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz.
He will want to clear the air most urgently on three controversial items of burning interest to both leaders: Riyadh’s flat opposition to the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and skepticism in the face of Obama’s conviction that a comprehensive accord will curtail the Islamic Republic’s drive for a nuclear weapon.
Next, the US leader will try and persuade the new Saudi ruler to slow down oil production in order to put the brakes on plunging prices, an example which other OPEC members are sure to follow.
Finally, Obama and Salman must decide how to handle the fall of Yemen into the hands of Shiite Houthi rebels, who have seized the capital Sanaa with Iranian support and brought down the US-Saudi-sponsored president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Washington and the Gulf expect Obama to focus in his initial encounter with Salman on the broad lines of the nuclear Iran dispute and oil prices. Detailed discussions on these and other issues will be set aside for US and Saudi officials of lower rank to hammer out in the coming weeks, as the new king begins to take hold of the reins of government.
A number of Middle East leaders will be following the outcome of this Riyadh summit with bated breath. Many are worried that Obama may persuade the new monarch to play ball with his Middle East policies, so effecting a radical reversal of the late Abdullah’s stance of flat opposition to Obama’s tactics in the region, aside from isolated cases.
A decision by Salman to accept America’s lead on the Iranian nuclear question and oil prices would be a serious blow for the anti-US Arab front, spearheaded hitherto by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and some of the Gulf emirates. It would also be a setback for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s fight against Obama’s nuclear diplomacy for Iran. This policy was underpinned by the Saudi-Egyptian political and military partnership that aimed at stalling the deal crafted by Washington, which purported to lay to rest the nuclear controversy with Iran.