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Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine face citizen anger

Vyacheslav Ponomarev, center, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, speaks to local citizens whose homes were ruined in a shelling in Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, May 20, 2014. On Tuesday, the rebels continued to exchange fire with government forces on the outskirts of the eastern city of Slovyansk, which has been the epicenter of clashes. Residents of Slovyansk sounded exasperated and angry with both the warring sides. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko) -
Vyacheslav Ponomarev, center, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, speaks to local citizens whose homes were ruined in a shelling in Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, May 20, 2014. On Tuesday, the rebels continued to exchange fire with government forces on the outskirts of the eastern city of Slovyansk, which has been the epicenter of clashes. Residents of Slovyansk sounded exasperated and angry with both the warring sides. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
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By Alexander Zemlianichenko And Jim Heintz, The Associated Press

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine - From the country's richest man to citizens under fire, anger and dismay over Ukraine's eastern turmoil gained strength Tuesday, but pro-Russian rebels who have declared the region independent vowed defiance.

In Kyiv, home to the central government that the separatists detest, lawmakers passed a memorandum that guaranteed the status of Russian as Ukraine's second official language and proposed government decentralization. While the document offered no specifics or timeframe, Russia — which long had pressed for both commitments — offered words of guarded welcome.

"If what you are saying is true, this is the development we have been speaking about for the past months," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin was quoted as telling state news agency RIA Novosti.

In Mariupol, an eastern Ukrainian city that suffered fatal clashes this month between protesters and police, workers at a steel mill stopped their labour at noon as a siren blew. They gathered for a speech from the company's chief condemning the separatist movement known as the Donetsk People's Republic.

"We are here because Mariupol needs a peaceful sky above us. Tanks and guns have no place in our city," said mill worker Sergey Kulitsh.

The plant is part of the industrial empire of Rinat Akhmetov, regarded as Ukraine's richest man, who had called for his workers to attend noontime protests.

The tycoon vowed to challenge the insurgents who declared independence last week in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, home to 6.5 million people.

"No one will frighten us, including those calling themselves a Donetsk People's Republic," Akhmetov said in a statement.

Last week, his company organized steelworkers to patrol alongside police in Mariupol. The move forced insurgents to vacate government buildings they had seized in the Black Sea port.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov hailed Akhmetov's move as likely to "sweep the terrorist scum away better than any counterterrorist operation."

One rebel leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, retaliated Tuesday by threatening to nationalize Akhmetov's businesses over his refusal to pay taxes to the separatists.

Ukraine is holding a presidential election Sunday, which the government in Kyiv hopes will unite the country behind a new leader.

Separatists exchanged fire again Tuesday with government forces on the outskirts of Slovyansk — the epicenter of the rebellion against the government — as residents voiced their anger over the fighting.

Yekaterina Len, whose house was hit by a mortar shell, burst into tears as she looked at the wreckage. The 61-year-old spent the night with neighbours.

Residents complained that rebels' gunfire at government troops was drawing retaliatory fire and endangering their homes.

"They must stop with this banditry so that there can be peace!" said resident Lina Sidorenko. "How much longer can this go on? We had a united country and now look what's happened."

Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the separatist leader in Slovyansk, heard an earful Tuesday as he met about 200 residents, who shouted at him to end hostilities.

Wearing a pistol on his belt and flanked by a bodyguard toting a Kalashnikov rifle, Ponomaryov yelled back, saying he would pay compensation to repair damaged houses.

"Please, I implore you, do not panic!" he shouted. "If you do, you are playing into the hands of our enemies."

Russia's Defence Ministry, meanwhile, said army units were dismantling camps along the Ukraine border. Such withdrawal activity, if confirmed, would ease fears that the Kremlin was positioned to invade eastern Ukraine and seize the country's industrial heartland.

But NATO, which estimates that Russia has 40,000 troops along the border, said it had no evidence of a Russian withdrawal. NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu challenged the Russians "to prove that they are doing, what they are saying."

___

Heintz reported from Moscow. Associated Press reporters Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

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