* Crisis mounts after Russia's seizure of Crimea region
* Armed men seize buildings in eastern Ukraine
* Kiev says cut-off of Russian gas looking likely
* France's Le Pen meets official on sanctions list
(Updates, changes dateline)
By Pavel Polityuk and Alessandra Prentice
KIEV/MOSCOW, April 12 Armed men seized official
buildings in a city in eastern Ukraine on Saturday and hoisted
the Russian flag, deepening a stand-off with Moscow which, Kiev
warned, was dragging Europe into a "gas war" that could disrupt
supplies across the continent.
At least 20 men armed with pistols and rifles took over the
police station and a security services headquarters in
Slaviansk, about 150 km (90 miles) from the border with Russia.
Officials said the men had seized hundreds of pistols from
arsenals in the buildings. The militants replaced the Ukrainian
flag on one of the buildings with the red, white and blue
On a road leading into Slaviansk, other members of the
group, armed with automatic rifles, set up a roadblock and
checked vehicles entering the city, a Reuters reporter said.
Ukraine's Western-backed government warned of tough action
if the militants did not lay down their weapons, but it was
unclear if the local law enforcement agencies were taking orders
from Kiev any more after the local police chief quit.
Kostyantyn Pozhydayev came out to speak to pro-Russian
protesters at his offices in the regional capital, Donetsk, and
told them he was stepping down "in accordance with your
demands". Some of his officers left the building.
The protesters occupied the ground floor of the Donetsk
police headquarters and a black and orange flag adopted by
pro-Russian separatists flew over the building in place of the
Ukrainian flag, a Reuters reporter said.
The occupations are a potential flashpoint because if
protesters are killed or hurt by Ukrainian forces, that could
prompt the Kremlin to intervene to protect the local
Russian-speaking population, a repeat of the scenario in Crimea.
Russia and Ukraine have been in confrontation since protests
in Kiev forced the Moscow-backed president from office, and the
Kremlin sent troops into Crimea, the home of its Black Sea Fleet
and a part of Russia until 1954.
Moscow denies any plan to send in forces or split Ukraine,
but the Western-leaning authorities in Kiev believe Russia is
trying to create a pretext to interfere again. NATO says Russian
armed forces are massing on Ukraine's eastern border, while
Moscow says they are on normal manoeuvres.
Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting Ukrainian president, called
an emergency meeting of the national security council for
Saturday evening to discuss the unrest in the east.
Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, said
he had spoken by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei
Lavrov and demanded Moscow stop what he called "provocative
actions" by its agents in eastern Ukraine.
Lavrov, in a statement issued by his ministry, said there
were no Russian agents in the region and that it would be
"unacceptable" if Ukrainian authorities were to order the
storming of the buildings.
Ukrainian commentator Sergei Leshchenko said the burst of
activity by pro-Russian groups was an attempt by the Kremlin to
give it a strong negotiating position before international talks
about Ukraine in Geneva next Thursday.
Russia is expected to argue at the talks for a revamp of
Ukraine's constitution to give a large degree of autonomy to
eastern Ukraine, something Kiev and its Western backers reject.
"Russia will come to the talks with the position that
'Donetsk and several neighbouring regions are already ours - now
let's talk about federalisation'," said Leshchenko, a
commentator with the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper.
With the crisis in Ukraine still unresolved, the gas dispute
threatens to affect millions of people across Europe.
A large proportion of the natural gas that EU states buy
from Russia is pumped via Ukrainian territory, so if Russia
makes good on a threat to cut off Ukraine for non-payment of its
bills, customers further west will have supplies disrupted.
Russia is demanding Kiev pay a much higher price for its
gas, and settle unpaid bills. Russian state-owned gas giant
Gazprom and its Ukrainian counterpart, Naftogaz, are
in talks, but the chances of an agreement are slim.
"I would say we are coming nearer to a solution of the
situation, but one in the direction that is bad for Ukraine,"
Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuri Prodan said in an interview with
the German newspaper Boersenzeitung
"We are probably steering towards Russia turning off its gas
provision," he was quoted as saying.
That raised the spectre of a repeat of past "gas wars", when
Ukraine's gas was cut off with a knock-on effect on supplies to
The scope for compromise narrowed after the Naftogaz chief
executive told a Ukrainian newspaper that Kiev was suspending
payments to Gazprom pending a conclusion of talks on a new deal.
Ukraine has de facto stopped payments already because it
failed to make an instalment of over $500 million due this month
to Russian state gas giant Gazprom.
Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov, asked by Reuters about
the statement by the Naftogaz chief, said: "What does suspending
mean? They've not paid at all" since mid-way through last month.
Moscow says it does not want to turn off Ukraine's gas if it
can be avoided, and that it will honour all commitments to
supply its EU customers.
Kiev and Brussels are working out ways to keep supplies
flowing to EU states, and for those countries to then pump the
gas to Ukraine by reversing the flow in their pipelines.
The crisis has been seized upon by some right-wing
nationalists in the EU who are campaigning for next month's
European Parliament elections. They accuse Brussels of
Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front,
was in Moscow on Saturday and met the speaker of Russia's lower
house of parliament, one of the people on an EU sanctions list.
"I am surprised a Cold War on Russia has been declared in
the European Union," Russian media quoted her as saying.
(Additional reporting by Conor Humphries in Kiev, Alexei
Anishchuk, Alessandra Prentice and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow,
William Schomberg in London, Annika Breidthardt in Berlin, Lina
Kushch in Donetsk, Ukraine and Gleb Garanich in Slaviansk,
Ukraine; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)