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Pro-Russian groups tighten grip on eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian militiamen are strengthening their hold on eastern Ukraine, even as international talks continue to probe a way to ease tensions in the embattled nation.

More than a dozen cities in self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, home to 10 percent of Ukraine’s 45 million people, remained firmly under the control of by Kremlin-backed separatist groups led by Russia’s well-trained, well-equipped and well-financed special forces, who today employ the same IT technologies and electronic media strategies used to in Kiev to topple former President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

The two cities of regional significance located at the northern portion of Donetsk province in eastern Ukraine are Sloviansk (population 120,000) and Kramotorsk (170,000 population). Both are bridgeheads for Kremlin-backed militiamen, who have used Internet portals, social media platforms, Ustream, and push-to-talk smartphone apps, such as Viber and Zello, to arrange barricades and live shields of women and children to fend off potential attacks by Ukrainian troops after acting PresidentOleksandrTurchynov authorized an anti-terrorist operation earlier in the week.

“I think there is the possibility, the prospect that diplomacy will de-escalate the situation and we will be able to move to what our goal has been all along: that Ukrainians be able to make their own decisions about their own lives,” President Obama said last week when asked whether talks in Geneva between American, European and Ukrainian diplomats could bring about a breakthrough in efforts to ease tension between officials in Kiev and pro-Kremlin separatists in Ukraine.

A group of armed men last week took over the television tower in Sloviansk, which provides terrestrial signals to neighboring towns of Horlivka, Kramatorsk and Makiyivka. They cut off transmission of Ukrainain television channels, replacing them with channels originating from the Russian Federation.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Freedom of Media Representative Dunja Mijatovic condemned the action on her Twitter page. “Citizens’ right to access to information must be upheld at all times,” she tweeted.

“I am worried that this might become a dangerous pattern and call on the authorities to ensure the protection of media facilities and infrastructure in eastern parts of Ukraine,” Mijatovic said in an official statement hours.

One day earlier, Ukraine's Ministry of Defense said armed gunmen had kidnapped an employee of the Donetsk branch of the Ukrainian State Centre of Radio Frequencies (UCRF) in Kramatorsk and made off with a vehicle equipped with means to control radio frequencies.

The employee was taken hostage, Ukraine's Defense Ministry said, adding that the car left in unknown direction, accompanied by two armoured personnel carriers. Late on April 18, agents from Ukraine's State Security Agency said they rescued the worker in Kramatorsk and once again shut down transmission of Russian television channels to the region.

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on April 17 hashed out their one-page communique calling for the de-escalation of tensions in eastern and southern Ukraine, a group based in Russia named Antimaidan.su - in opposition to the EuroMaidan Revolution that toppled Viktor Yanukovych – unveiled its new, revamped Internet portal, proclaiming online that power only “belongs to the residents of the region.”

His new, updated site incorporates links to live Ustream (video) and Zello feeds from separatist groups throughout eastern and southern Ukraine, along with links to pro-Kremlin electronic and print media.  

Ukrainians have known for years that foreign experts pick up on much less in conversation than native speakers. However, few in Kiev expected that after Yanukovych's ouster that the West would be unable to construe accurately what has been said and done - and is now being streamed – by pro-Russian separatists in post-revolutionary Ukraine.