Ukraine crisis: Pro-Russians step up attacks during clashes in east of the country

Masked gunmen are storming more government buildings, barricading roads and demanding a split from Kiev

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The Independent Online

The response came within 24 hours of the Ukrainian Prime Minister’s visit to the east, offering concessions. One group of gunmen seized a police station in Slavyansk; another tried to storm the prosecutor’s office in Donetsk; while a third took control of a police station in Kramatorsk following a firefight.

The latest attacks showed that there was little likelihood of the confrontation between the separatists and the Kiev government ending soon. Demonstrations have been planned across the region over the weekend by both sides, and tensions were further raised by reports of troop movements and right-wing activists arriving from the west of the country.

Last night, a group of 20 men dressed in matching combat fatigues seized the regional police HQ in Kramatorsk, just 90 miles from the Russian border. Witnesses said the well-armed militia took orders from a commander before approaching the building and exchanging gunfire with police.

The raid in the early hours of the morning in Slavyansk, about 40 miles north of Donetsk near the Russian border, was carried out by a small group of men wearing balaclavas, who threw stun grenades and fired shots in the air.

One of their leaders, calling himself Leonid, told The Independent on Sunday: “It was a successful operation. There was no blood spilled. The police were understanding. We are going to stay in there until they meet our demands, which are for a referendum. The people will decide what the terms of the referendum will be.


“I don’t want to go into the details of the operation, but we will be able to defend ourselves if we come under attack. I don’t think that Spetsnatz [special forces] will fire on their brothers and sisters.”

The town, on the route to Kharkiv, had been ringed by checkpoints composed of tyres, sandbags and broken furniture. They were manned by resisters, including some Kalashnikov assault rifles. Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, declared: “Here, our response will be very severe: there is zero tolerance for armed terrorists.”

Mr Avakov claimed that special forces had been sent to the town. “I will say it again: those who want dialogue ... will have dialogue and the search for solutions. Those who are up in arms, set fire to buildings, shoot at people, police, terrorise with bats and masks, these people will face an appropriate response.”

Officials held talks with the armed group, said to be between six to eight men. Police spokesman Ihor Dyomin said: “We are trying to get them to leave. We want to bring this to a conclusion.” A police statement issued from the capital, Kiev, said: “The aim of the takover was the guns. They are giving these guns to participants in the protest.”


Mr Avakov has taken a hard-line in the crisis and issued an ultimatum to separatists occupying the administrative base in Donetsk to withdraw within 48 hours or face an attack. That deadline passed on Friday without any action from the government. Yesterday, however, the regional police chief, Kostyantyn Pozhydayev, said he was quitting his post after pressure from pro-Russian protesters.

Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, had taken a much more conciliatory note on a visit to Donetsk on Friday with a delegation of ministers, including Mr Avakov, during which he stressed that he wanted to see a peaceful solution.


Speaking to local political leaders, civic society activists and the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in the country who had been a mediator between the two sides, Mr Yatsenyuk said the government was prepared to devolve more power to the regions and guarantee that Russian would continue as the country’s second state language – attempts to change this status by MPs in Kiev had fuelled the unrest in the east.

The mayors of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk, three cities which had experienced violent clashes, each endorsed a referendum for autonomy during the meeting. There has, however, been no indication that the Pemier’s proposals satisfied them.

The masked men at the at the administrative base in Donetsk dismissed Mr Yatsenyuk’s offer. “He is an imposter who is part of a regime which has taken power in a coup so we don’t recognise him,” said Leonid Churnenko, who said he was a former soldier. “He is not in control of anything; they were so scared that they kept his trip a secret. The people in real control are the fascists, and these are the people we have to deal with.”

Some groups seemed eager to take up the challenge. Roman, an activist who said he was in the Right Sector organisation, claimed he was coming with friends from the capital to “help the security forces” in the east. “It is obvious that these Russian agents are well prepared, but they should be arrested. They are sitting in these government buildings mocking us,” he said. “We want more young Ukrainians to show the spirit of the revolution and secure the territories of our country.”