POSTED: 2:10 a.m. HST, Apr 10, 2014
DONETSK, Ukraine >> Ukraine's acting president promised Thursday that pro-Russian activists occupying government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk will not be prosecuted if they lay down their arms.
The comments by Oleksandr Turchynov came as NATO's chief visited Prague to assure the Czechs of support against any moves by Russia to expand its orbit of influence and as the Council of Europe rights group voted to suspend Russia's participation for the rest of the year.
Turchynov, speaking to the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev, commended the activists in Luhansk, who have begun negotiating with national authorities in Kiev and encouraged Donetsk to follow their example.
Hundreds of armed pro-Russian protesters have occupied a regional government administration building in Donetsk and a branch of the Ukrainian Security Service in Luhansk since Sunday. They have demanded a referendum on broader autonomy or even secession from the new Kiev authorities, who took power after Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in February following months of street protests.
Tensions were still high Thursday in Donetsk, with about 1,000 protesters standing outside the occupied building chanting "Russia! Russia!" Activists were reinforcing lines of barricades, piling up rubber tires or building brick walls out of cobblestones.
Local protest leaders defied requests to leave the building and announced they would create a foreign relations group to reach out to Russia and other former Soviet republics for assistance.
Ukraine and Western powers, meanwhile, have voiced concerns about a buildup of Russian troops along its border with Ukraine. NATO says Moscow is using the troops to keep pressure on the Kiev government and may be preparing for possible invasion like it did last month in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia has since annexed.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO chief, once again condemned the annexation of Crimea.
"Russia is trying to justify its actions by accusing the Ukrainian authorities of oppressing Russian speakers and by accusing NATO of a cold war mentality. This is nothing but propaganda designed to subvert the Ukrainian government, pervert the truth and divert attention from Russia's own illegal and illegitimate actions," he said Thursday.
The Russian Foreign Ministry lashed back at Fogh Rasmussen, condemning him for "zealously reproducing Cold War-era rhetoric."
In France, a European parliamentary assembly suspended Russia's right to vote and take part in monitoring elections this year to punish the nation for its takeover of Crimea.
Thursday's vote came in the Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog, which has lawmakers from 47 nations including Russia and Ukraine.
Laura Mills in Moscow and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.