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Clashes at Black Sea base

The turmoil in Ukraine dominated the European landscape Thursday, as three protesters were killed in a clash in southern Ukraine, high-level talks were held in Geneva and Vladimir Putin weighed in on his neighbour's future for hours from Moscow.

Still, the constellation of events left the nation of 46 million no closer to solving its essential challenge: the confrontation pitting Ukraine's new government in Kyiv against a pro-Russian insurgency in its eastern regions that is being tacitly supported by Moscow.

Three pro-Russian protesters were killed and 13 injured during an attempted raid overnight on a Ukrainian National Guard base in the Black Sea port of Mariupol, Ukraine's authorities said Wednesday .

The Interior Ministry said a mob of around 300 people armed with stun grenades and firebombs were involved in the bloodiest episode to date in the month-long insurgency.

Masked and battle-ready militia bearing sophisticated firearms have been deeply involved in seizing government offices in eastern Ukraine, igniting suspicions that much of the unrest is being stirred with Russia's backing.

But in a four-hour televised question-and-answer session, Putin on Thursday dismissed as "nonsense" claims that Russian special forces were fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

"It's all nonsense, there are no Russian units, special forces or instructors in the east of Ukraine," Putin said.

He did admit — for the first time — that the troops in unmarked uniforms who had captured Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula before its annexation last month by Moscow were Russian soldiers.

Putin also expressed hope that four-way talks between Ukraine, the U.S., the European Union and Russia in Geneva on Thursday could map a way out of one of Europe's greatest security threats in decades.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry said shots fired by servicemen in the Mariupol base initially proved insufficient to deter the pro-Russian crowd from proceeding with their assault.

There were no casualties among Ukrainian servicemen, the ministry said. At least 63 people involved in the attack were detained, but local media cited police as saying 38 were later released.

The southern Ukrainian city lies on the road running from Russia along the coast to Crimea, the peninsula that Russia annexed last month. NATO says Russia has up to 40,000 troops along its border with Ukraine. If Russia was eyeing a possible "land bridge" from Russia to Crimea, it would need to take over the region that includes Mariupol.

Speaking in parliament, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said a pro-Russian gang carrying automatic weapons attempted to storm the base three times.

One soldier involved in the battle, a 20-year old conscript who gave his name only as Stanislav, said troops were forced to act in self-defence.

"We were attacked by unidentified people and we didn't want to shoot, but they were behaving aggressively," he told the AP. "At first we fired in the air, but they continued advancing."

One protester admitted to a hospital with a bullet wound to the stomach said soldiers opened fire on them while they were attempting to force open the gates.

"We just threw Molotov cocktails to light the way," said Sergei Shevchenko, a 40-year-old businessman from the regional capital, Donetsk.

Nearby residents were divided about the night's events.

"Russia isn't just exporting oil and gas, but also terrorism," said 43-year-old resident Yevgeny Nechiporenko. "This shooting and blood, the blood is on Russia's hands."

Yet passers-by berated Nechiporenko as he spoke, with one accusing him of being an "agent of the West."

"We are willing to give up our lives so long as we don't have to serve the fascists from Kyiv," said resident Anna Govorko.

The Canadian Press

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