MOSCOW, April 24 (RIA Novosti) - Kiev has ordered the Ukrainian army to launch a major crackdown on protesters in southeastern Ukraine involving thousands of troops and heavy military equipment, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Thursday.
According to Shoigu, over 11,000 troops, 160 tanks, 230 armored vehicles, and some 150 artillery pieces take part in a special operation that started Thursday with attack on checkpoints occupied by pro-federalization protesters in the city of Slaviansk.
The army is supported by riot police, units from the newly formed National Guard and groups of armed radicals from the so-called Right Sector nationalist movement, the minister said.
At the same time, the pro-federalization militia numbers some 2,000 poorly-armed protesters, according to the Russian military.
"It is clearly an uneven confrontation," Shoigu said.
"If this military machine is not stopped today, it would lead to a large number of casualties," he added.
Kiev has resumed the crackdown on pro-federalization activists in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Gorlovka, Slaviansk and Kramatorsk, who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the current Ukrainian authorities and demand referendums similar to the one held in Crimea last month, which led to the republic's reunification with Russia.
In a bid to de-escalate the ongoing conflict, top diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union approved a statement on April 17 calling on the sides in Ukraine to refrain from violence, extremism and provocations, disarm militants and launch a national dialogue on constitutional reform.
In violation of the Geneva deal, a group of unknown gunmen, allegedly members of the Right Sector far-right group, killed at least three people in an attack on a checkpoint near Slaviansk this weekend. The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the attack as “provocation” that pointed to Kiev's reluctance to disarm nationalists and extremists.
According to official reports, at least five protesters were killed in Slaviansk Thursday.