- The Washington Times - Friday, May 2, 2014

The U.S. Agency for International Development announced Friday that it will beef up its spending in Ukraine to help the nation’s independent media outlets prepare for covering the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election.

USAID officials said they will add $1.25 million specifically for media support onto the more than $10 million U.S. government agencies already committed to help bring about a transparent election in Ukraine, where a pro-Western interim government has been in place since the nation’s Russia-backed president resigned amid massive protests in February.

The agency said in a statement Friday that Ukraine’s media has “faced serious challenges and dangers” amidst tensions in the nation over the past several months,” with more than 500 journalists “harassed, beaten, abducted and one journalist killed.”

“USAID supports a strong and independent media in Ukraine,” said Paige Alexander, assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia. “This additional funding will help to protect vulnerable journalists while also advancing press freedoms and democratic governance in Ukraine.”

The additional $1.25 million will be channeled into the agency’s “U-MEDIA” program in Ukraine, a project of Internews, a nonprofit international media support organization based in California and Washington, D.C.

Friday’s announcement came amidst escalating tension between Russia and the interim government in Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev over the growing presence of Moscow-backed militants in Eastern Ukraine.

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The past 24 hours have seen fresh clashes between those militants and Ukrainian military forces beholden to Kiev. The Associated Press reported that two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down Friday as Ukrainian military launched its first major offensive against the pro-Russia militants that have seized government buildings in the nation’s East.

News organizations also reported that officials in Moscow had said Kiev’s move against the militants had “destroyed” hopes for peace in Ukraine’s east.

The AP reported that fighting broke out around dawn near Slovyansk, a city roughly 100 miles from the Russian border that has become the focus of the armed insurgency against Ukraine’s interim government. Two helicopter crew were killed in the crashes, both sides said, and a pro-Russia militiaman was reported killed.

The Ukrainian Security Service said one of the helicopters had been hit by a surface-to-air missile and that the use of such a sophisticated weapon undercut Russian government claims that Slovyansk was simply under the control of armed locals. The Ukrainian Security Service added that its forces were fighting “highly skilled foreign military men” in the city.

Separately, the AP reported that journalists from CBS News, Buzzfeed and Sky News who were covering the unrest in eastern Ukraine had been freed after being detained by the pro-Russia insurgents for several hours Friday.

CBS correspondent Clarissa Ward and her crew, and Buzzfeed Mideast correspondent Mike Giglio, were taken into custody Friday near Slovyansk. Mrs. Ward said she and her crew were bound with tape and transported to another location, and one of her male colleagues was beaten while being held captive.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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