Ukraine crisis: ‘If they storm us, they will end up killing a lot of civilians’, say pro-Russian occupiers of administrative building in Donetsk
Armed with Molotov cocktails, defended by razor wire, the separatists tell Kim Sengupta they are ready to fight Kiev’s forces
One of the men tore off his balaclava, declaring he was not afraid to be identified; the face beneath was painted bright blue. Another was armed with what appeared to be a harpoon, others were preparing Molotov cocktails. Outside piles of tyres, bags of cement and rolls of razor wire were being assembled. The Peoples’ Republic of Donetsk was preparing fresh defences against an expected onslaught.
The Ukrainian government, which is under heavy public pressure to act decisively, has given an ultimatum of 48 hours to the separatists in this eastern city to disarm and leave the administrative building they had been occupying, or face an attack.
It remains uncertain whether they would be prepared to carry out the threat, bringing with it the near certainty of casualties and the possibility of intervention by the Kremlin. The administration in Kiev do not need reminding that Vladmir Putin’s authorisation from his Parliament for using troops was not just for Crimea, which was subsequently annexed, but applied to all of Ukraine.
The acting interior minister in Kiev, Arsen Avakov, had announced that a “special police task force” had already arrived in Donetsk. There was, however, no security presence near the “siege” in the city centre. Two policemen at a street corner were bemused to be asked why they were not part of a force trying to evict the squatters. “If Kiev want to take it, they will send their troops; we are not in a position to do anything right now,” one of them shrugged. “We are waiting for orders,” his companion added.
Twenty miles to the west, Ukrainian armoured personnel carriers and light artillery had been stopped by pro-Russian local people lined up across the road. There were prolonged arguments; the officers tried to stress that they were, in fact, headed for the border, across which 40,000 Russian troops are reported to be stationed.
The demonstrators accused them of lying, accusing them of trying to “invade Donetsk”. As the impasse continued, 63-year-old Liliana accused the soldiers of being rough earlier on. “They were pushing people on to the ground, twisting arms behind their backs” she said. “They were trying to part the way through women with their vehicles, I was in the army once. I thought the behaviour was disgusting.”
After a while the convoy headed off on another route; the protestors were convinced they were seeking a way into the city, some of them took off in two elderly cars and a pick-up truck through side roads to intercept.
Pro-Russian protesters also erected banners stating their opposition to Ukraine’s plans for closer ties with the West (Getty Images)
In Kiev, acting president Oleksandr Turchynov hoped that troops may not be needed after all. He offered an amnesty to the separatists in Donetsk and nearby Luhansk, where the headquarters of the state security organisation has been taken over, promising “there would be no criminal prosecution of people who give up their weapons and leave the buildings, I am willing to do this by presidential order. “
There was no inclination for a compromise inside the administrative building in Donetsk. “This so called amnesty is no different from the ultimatum; they want us to give up this building, we won’t do that. We are not going to leave until we get a referendum. They want us to surrender our weapons; what will we have to defend ourselves when the fascists from Kiev come?” Aleksei Babanin, who was carrying a baseball bat, wanted to know. “If they storm us, they will end up by killing a lot of civilians. Then we will definitely need Russian peacekeepers,” he stated.
The Ukrainian authorities had earlier ended a similar stand-off in Kharkiv, arresting 70 people, without recourse to firearms. “They will find it very difficult to force us out, see how narrow the stairs are, they will have to take this floor by floor,” said Nicolai, who claimed to have been a gunner with Russian forces in Chechnya. “We are prepared for any assault, we are well prepared.”
In the group, he maintained, there were around 800 “trained men ready to defend the building” but refused to discuss what kind of weapons they have. In Luhansk, Tatyana Pogukai, an officer with the police, said the barricaded activists had a variety of arms, including “200 to 300 Kalashnikov automatic rifles. They are not going to give them up until they get a referendum.”
That was also the rallying cry among the crowd of around 1,000 in Donetsk outside the administrative building, with posters stating: “US and EU, hands off Donetsk” and “Yesterday Crimea: Today Donbass”. Valentina Komorowski, a 38-year-old accountant wanted to know, “Why is it all right for Scotland to have a referendum and not us? They even have those people in Africa getting a separate country [South Sudan] but not us.”
Svetlana Vorosilovina was adamant that the Donbass region could not stay with the west of the country, “because there is always the danger that those fascists from the Maidan [the centre of protests in Kiev] will come and do terrible things. Did you say you were in the Maidan? Then you must have seen they beheaded people there?” Mrs Vorosilovina, 76, simply would not accept that it did not happen.
Her granddaughter, Natalya, smiled: “She’s a bit confused, maybe she is confusing it with Syria, isn’t that what people backed by America and Britain are doing, cutting off peoples’ heads? A big emotion here is fear, maybe some of it is due to propaganda, but we see all these right-wing people getting into government in Kiev and for people like my grandmother, it brings back memories of the War, of Nazis. People in the West wouldn’t understand that.”
Half an hour later, the loudspeaker started playing music: battle hymns of the Red Army from the Great Patriotic War.
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