Ukraine crisis: Bloody assault in Mariupol in south-east dashes hopes of avoiding civil war

Caretaker government warns of further lethal action against ‘terrorists’

Mariupol

The dead and injured are carried out of a burning building; more bodies lying in the street; prolonged exchanges of fire as armoured carriers smash through barricades; and, with the violence, anger and calls for revenge.

That was Mariupol after a day of bloody strife which slid Ukraine further towards civil war.

The country’s caretaker government can be accused of trying to blow out flickering hopes of peace by launching a military operation on one of the most revered anniversaries in the Russian-speaking half of the country, the commemoration of victory over Nazi Germany.

The military action is accompanied by stridently aggressive rhetoric from politicians in Kiev who are crowing about the numbers of “terrorists” killed and threatening further lethal punishment.

By the evening there are differing body counts ranging from 20 to five, with around another 25 injured. But the accuracy of statistics has meant little in this confrontation. What matters is the perception. For many in this port on the Azov Sea, today greatly reinforced the view – relentlessly promoted by the separatist leadership – that fascists from the west of the country are coming to attack.

 

“This is not about 2014 in Ukraine, this is taking us back to Berlin in 1945, that is what they want to avenge, the defeat of their Nazi masters”, is the view of Captain Zorin Aleksandr Nicolaivitch, who spent 18 years in the navy. He is in his full dress uniform, with two rows of medals, rushing to one of the places of  killing from the parade for the Great Patriotic War.

“Look, this is the only weapon that I, or anyone else, has around here,” says the 63-year-old retired officer, lifting up the ceremonial dagger at his belt. “No, only one side came armed, wanting to fight, today. It wasn’t the people of Mariupol.”

Arms, however, appear to have been a key issue. There are two conflicting narratives. The Kiev administration’s version is that a mob had taken over the central police station, with the primary aim of getting hold of its extensive armoury, and then opened fire on government troops, killing some policemen in the process.

Residents, as well as protesters, insist this is a lie. The police, they maintain, had shown great sympathy towards them, and the Ukrainian military, with a band of armed fellow travellers, wanted to take control of the weapons and attacked the station precisely for that reason.

A body lying in front of the station, with firemen trying to control the flames, is that of a policeman: his uniform hat and a mobile telephone have been placed on him. “Let me show you something,” says Viktor Nicolaivich, trying to keep his voice calm as he pulls up the covering blanket. One arm of the officer is encased in plaster. “He couldn’t even pull the trigger to defend himself against the fascist bastards. We know this man, I was with him yesterday, he is one of our local policemen, we would never want to harm people like him.”

Vladimir Putin with Second World War veterans in Sevastopol yesterday Vladimir Putin with Second World War veterans in Sevastopol yesterday (Getty Images)
The city’s police commander, Valeryi Androsehuk, is missing. The Ukrainian authorities claim that he has been kidnapped by militants; the protesters maintain that he had either perished in the flames, or been arrested. The chief had refused, they say, to hand over the headquarters to the soldiers.

Across the road lies another corpse, that of one of the “fascists” who had been with the soldiers, say the residents, inevitably labelled a member of the Right Sector, an extremist group who allegedly carry out the government’s dirty work. The man is wearing civilian clothing, a black top and jeans, with an armband in Ukrainian colours. “This man was shooting at the police building, I saw him,” Valentina Semoronova says. “Then he got wounded and fell; the policemen were shooting back. The soldiers did nothing to help him. All they did was take the rifle with them when they left.”

In the course of the next confusing hour the armband disappears, snatched off by a collaborator, according to some. There are mutters that it was a Ukrainian journalist, although we have not seen any present at the scene.

Such charges often lead to an outbreak of hostility towards the media. But here the crowd, though angry, is keen to put over its side. The people stand under raindrops blackened by ash pleading that two things must be made clear to the outside world; they do not have guns and they are Ukrainians, not Russians. They produce their driving licences and passports.

To Arsen Avakov, many of these people are terrorists. Ukraine’s acting Interior Minister has been a voracious user of Facebook to chronicle military operations, some of the accounts wildly inaccurate. He wrote: “A terrorist group of about 60 men armed with automatic weapons attacked the police headquarters.

War veterans at a ceremony marking Victory Day in Donetsk yesterday War veterans at a ceremony marking Victory Day in Donetsk yesterday (Getty Images)
“About 20 terrorists were destroyed and four taken prisoner. To those who come with weapons and who shoot… To them there can be only one answer from the Ukrainian state – annihilation.”

Apart from the two bodies outside the station, I see three others being carried out; it is unclear whether they are dead or have suffered severe injuries from the fire. Colleagues and residents report three others killed.

Mr Avakov also stresses the involvement of several branches of security in the mission, including special forces, National Guard and the army. This is seen as an attempt to assuage criticism in Kiev and western Ukraine of the “anti-terrorist offensive”.

But Mariupol has also become the arena for a number of shadowy bunches of gunmen. Two days ago, a unit in black combat uniform carried out unprovoked assaults on protesters outside another police station. There have been contradictory accounts about who they were from Kiev authorities – National Guard, special forces, Ministry of Interior police. One theory is that they were mercenaries bankrolled by Igor Kolomoisky, an oligarch and Ukrainian nationalist, who had previously offered a bounty for the capture of Russian “agents”.

Elena Rukoshova, a 26-year-old former kindergarten teacher, was beside her friend, Jaroslav, when he was beaten up and arrested in the last incident involving the men in black. She rushed to the police station from the parade this morning to see them and other forces involved in action again.

 

This player is used within article copy as first element. Default size is 630w but FC code uses it for 460w article layout.
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003