Ukraine separatists given Russian arms, warns opposition

Fears are mounting that Boxing Day elections in Ukraine will be wrecked by an orchestrated campaign of violence after reports that pro-government "thugs" were being supplied with weaponry from a Russian naval base in Crimea.

Hryhoriy Omelchenko, an opposition MP, claims to have evidence that up to 300 AK-47 automatic rifles, as well as grenades and explosives, have been handed over to groups linked to separatist politicians in eastern Ukraine.

A spokesman for the Russian Black Sea fleet, based in the Ukrainian peninsula of Sevastopol, denied the allegations.

Mr Omelchenko, a former Soviet-era KGB officer who also served as a colonel in the Ukrainian intelligence service after independence, said he received his information from serving officers. "The intention is to use bloodshed to disrupt the election so badly that it is declared invalid," he told The Independent. Separatist politicians in east Ukraine threatened to declare the region autonomous and create "self- defence units" after the presidential election victory of their Kremlin-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, the Prime Minister, was quashed and a new election ordered.

"[After the violence] they will argue that any new election should have neither [Viktor] Yushchenko nor Yanukovych as candidates and fix it for one of their people to win," he said.

Mr Omelchenko, the deputy chief of the parliamentary committee on organised crime and corruption, said the plan calls for police officers loyal to Mr Yanukovych from his eastern Ukrainian fiefdom of Donetsk, to lead "small groups of criminals" given guarantees of immunity.

"They will be in civilian cars, in convoys of about 10 cars with five people in each one," he said. "Their job will be to cause as much violence and mayhem as possible so the government declares the election invalid.

"I hope that if these people know their plans are no longer secret they will think twice about them and they will throw all these weapons down a well or an old mine shaft."

Volodymyr Lytvyn, the speaker of the parliament, said parliament would ask the prosecutor general's office and the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) to investigate.

The pro-Western opposition leader, Mr Yushchenko, advocates Nato and European Union membership, and Vladimir Putin, Russia's President, has worked hard to prevent him becoming president.

Mr Putin visited Ukraine on the eve of both previous presidential election rounds, in October and November, to boost Mr Yanukovych's popularity among Ukraine's large Russian ethnic minority, and has been chastised by the West for unseemly interference.

There have also been reports that Russian special forces have been present in the country. Many of Mr Yushchenko's colleagues suspect Russia was involved in the poisoning, last September, of the opposition leader, which left him hideously scarred.

The opposition claims that as part of the scheme to use violence, the government has attempted to replace the chief of the civilian and paramilitary police in Kiev, the capital, with Vladimir Vorobyov, a general from Donetsk.

Yuriy Pavlenko, an opposition MP and Yushchenko ally, said government plans to unleash heavily armed paramilitary forces against pro-democracy protesters last month were only blocked by senior Kiev police officers who vowed to defend the protesters. He said the same people foiled the attempt to install General Vorobyov at a meeting last Friday night. Mr Pavlenko said: "I think they want bloodshed to start and for the police and special forces to stand by initially, and then to go in and attack the opposition supporters under the pretext of restoring peace."

The MP said that as part of an opposition compromise with the government last month, Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing President, was to fire the Minister for Internal Affairs, Mykola Bilokon, who has been accused of colluding in massive electoral fraud and of abusing his powers on many other occasions. Instead he was allowed to take leave. Mr Pavlenko believes General Bilokon may soon be reinstated.

"General Bilokon has proved in the past that he is ruthless and he knows that if Mr Yushchenko becomes president, he will be prosecuted. He has nothing to lose and the danger is that many of these people feel they have nothing to lose," Mr Pavlenko said.

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