BYLBASIVKA, Ukraine (AP) — Within hours of an Easter morning shootout at a checkpoint manned by pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine, Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement blaming militant Ukrainian nationalists and Russian state television stations aired pictures of supposed proof of their involvement in the attack that left at least three people dead.
The Ukrainian Security Service, however, said the attack was staged by provocateurs from outside the country. And the presented evidence — particularly a pristine business card said to have been left behind by the attackers — was met with widespread ridicule in Ukraine, where it soon had its own Twitter hashtag.
The armed clash early Sunday near the city of Slovyansk appeared to be the first since an international agreement was reached last week in Geneva to ease tensions in eastern Ukraine, where armed pro-Russia activists have seized government buildings in at least 10 cities.
Ukraine's new leaders and many in the West fear that such clashes could provide a pretext for Russia to seize more Ukrainian territory.
Russia, which annexed the Crimean Peninsula last month, has tens of thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine. Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, originally said the troops were there for military exercises, but Putin's spokesman on Saturday acknowledged that some were there because of instability in eastern Ukraine.
The self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk appealed to Putin on Sunday to send in peacekeeping troops to protect Russian speakers from Ukrainian nationalists.
"They want to make us slaves. They don't talk to us, but simply kill us," Vyacheslav Ponomaryov said during a news conference in Slovyansk shown on Rossiya state television.
Yuri Zhadobin, who coordinates the pro-Russia unit manning the checkpoint in the village of Bylbasivka, told The Associated Press he was with about 20 men celebrating Easter when unknown men drove up in four vehicles and opened fire about 3 a.m.