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Ukraine: Russia flexes military muscle amid escalating tensions

MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered an urgent drill to test the combat readiness of the armed forces across western Russia flexing Moscow's military muscle amid increasing tensions with the West over Ukraine.

 Ukraine: Russia flexes military muscle amid escalating tensions

With ousted President Yanukovych in hiding, the interim government struggles to maintain peace in the country where protests erupted months ago. AP.

"In accordance with an order from the president of the Russian Federation, forces of the Western Military District were put on alert at 1400 (1000 GMT) today," Interfax quoted Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.

Tensions have been rising in between western nations and Russia, with Moscow questioning the legitimacy of the parliament ousting  president Viktor Yanukovych's who has been in hiding.

Political limbo to end soon

Meanwhile, Ukraine's new pro-Western leaders pledged to unveil a unity cabinet after disbanding the feared riot police as they sought to build confidence in the splintered and economically ravaged ex-Soviet state.

The lineup will be read out to the masses on Kiev's barricades-riven Independence Square -- the crucible of three months of unceasing protests that triggered pro-Russia president Yanukovych's ouster following a week of carnage in which nearly 100 people died.

"At 7:00 pm (1700 GMT) we will take to the stage to present the new government to the square," the UDAR (Punch) party of former boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said on its website.

The anti-government protests that appear to have once again turned the strategic nation on a Westward course, erupted over Yanukovych's shock decision in November to ditch an historic EU trade deal in favour of closer ties with old master Russia.

The deposed leader -- declared wanted for "mass murder" along with his former head of police and prosecutor general -- is believed to have gone into hiding in the Russian-speaking southern peninsula of Crimea that is now threatening to secede from Ukraine. Ukraine's parliament on Tuesday, voted to send the fugitive former president to be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for "serious crimes" committed during violent anti-government protests.

Russia has been venting daily outrage at the meteoric turn of events in a neighbouring country that Putin views as vital to his dream of building a post-Soviet alliance that could rival the EU and NATO blocs.

But both US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague gave the new leaders crucial backing on Tuesday while rejecting Moscow's claim that Ukraine was being forced to make a choice between the East and West.

'Berkut' disbanded 

The elite units carried shields and Kalashnikov rifles as they cracked down on protesters in Kiev and brutally beat those detained -- forcing one man to strip naked in the freezing cold and parade in front of a police camera in one incident that became infamous through the Internet. But the riot police 'Berkut' which killed 100 in clashes is no longer exists.

Acting interior minister Arsen Avakov announced on his Facebook account that he was dissolving the unit effective immediately. "The Berkut is no more," he wrote.

But Avakov said nothing about how he would deal with a possible insurrection from one of the country's best-armed and trained forces -- a 5,000-strong contingent with men in every corner of Ukraine.

Ukraine's armed forces and police units had largely shied away from choosing sides in the conflict. But due to mounting tensions, they too are faced with increasing pressure in pro-Russian regions to turn against provisional leaders whom Moscow accuses of leading an "armed mutiny".

Russia denounces 'neo-fascists' 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that Moscow thought it imperative "for the international community to issue an objective and impartial assessment" of events in Ukraine.

"Lavrov called on the OSCE to denounce in the strongest terms possible the rise of nationalist and neo-fascist sentiments in the west of the country," the foreign ministry said in a statement issued after talks between Lavrov and Organisation for Security and Cooperation secretary general Lamberto Zannier.

Reuters and AFP

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Updated Date: Feb 26, 2014 19:07:18 IST