Ukraine president appoints new defense officials
KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine's president shook up the leadership of his struggling military on Thursday, appointing a new defense minister and top general tasked with stamping out the corruption that has left the country's armed forces faltering before a pro-Russian insurgency.
President Petro Poroshenko denounced the "complete collapse" of the government's ability to supply the armed forces in a sometimes angry speech in parliament.
He won approval for his choice of Valery Heletey as defense minister, replacing Mikhailo Koval. Lt. Gen. Viktor Muzhenko was appointed chief of the military's general staff.
"Today the revival of the army is starting from the scratch, the army which is capable of fighting and winning," Poroshenko said in parliament. "I have witnessed that during meetings with soldiers and officers while visiting the zone of anti-terrorist operations — the army which knows how to and is able to defend its people and country. "
Kiev has struggled to re-assert control over the country's industrial east, where fighting between government troops and pro-Russia separatists has claimed more than 400 lives since April. The army has been unable to prevent rebels from occasionally cruising the countryside in armored vehicles or to dislodge them from the occupied town of Slovyansk.
Heletey is a former senior Interior Ministry official who headed the government service that protects top officials.
Poroshenko also appointed Yury Kosyuk, an agriculture magnate and one of Ukraine's richest men, to oversee defense issues in the presidential administration, and promised to "purge the army of thieves and grafters." Accusations of corruption have been rife as Kiev's operation against the rebels continues.
At one point, Poroshenko was interrupted by a woman in the hall shouting that the Ukrainian army was killing children. After a moment's pause he answered forcefully that "we will not tolerate any attempt to humiliate and dishonor our army," winning loud applause from the deputies.
Ukraine's UNIAN news agency identified the woman as a deputy from a party with support among Russian speakers. This could not immediately be confirmed.
Poroshenko's forceful words contrasted with his emphasis on starting a peace process voiced in his inaugural address June 7. He declared a unilateral cease-fire for 10 days in hopes rebels would lay down their arms and join talks. But the cease-fire was repeatedly violated and ultimately expired.
Rebels in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where more Russian speakers live, have declared independence and occupied government buildings. The insurrection started after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from office by a protest movement among people wanting closer ties with the European Union instead of Russia. Russia called Yanukovych's ouster a coup by radical nationalists and seized Ukraine's Russian-speaking Crimea region. Ukraine says Russia is backing the insurgency.
Poroshenko was elected in a special election May 25 to replace Yanukovych.
Diplomatic efforts for the peace process resumed Thursday. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, emphasizing the need for a lasting cease-fire, the Kremlin said. Diplomats from the four countries have urged new peace talks starting no later than Saturday aiming at a cease-fire by both sides. Hollande said he and Merkel pressed Russia to use its influence to bring the separatists to negotiations.
Merkel and Hollande were to speak later Wednesday with Poroshenko.