Pro-Russian separatists who seized a regional government building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk over the weekend proclaimed the region independent on Monday, a move that Ukraine's government called a Russian attempt to sow unrest.
The activists demanded that a referendum be held no later than May 11 on the possible secession of the Donetsk region, following in the footsteps of a similar move by Crimea in March.
The protesters, who police said were armed, erected a barricade of car tires and razor wire to keep security forces from retaking the building.
Speaking in a televised address, Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchinov called the events in the country’s east part of a Russian plot to foment unrest.
Pro-Russian activists seized government buildings in at least three cities on Sunday.
“Anti-terrorism measures will be adopted against those that took up weapons,” Turchinov said, adding that parliament would convene Tuesday to consider tougher penalties for separatist actions and even ban political parties that advocate separatism.
Earlier in the day, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also accused Russia of being behind the unrest and of seeking to sow instability as a pretext for sending troops across the border.
“The plan is to destabilise the situation; the plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow,” he said, adding that those taking part in the unrest have distinct Russian accents.
Yatsenyuk said Russian troops remain stationed within 30 kilometres (19 miles) of the border.
The international community has also expressed concern over the large Russian troop movements along the border with Ukraine. NATO says up to 40,000 Russian troops have mobilised and now present a distinct threat to the new regime in Kiev.
Russia, for its part, says it has the right to move its troops wherever it wants on its own territory.
Resisting the ‘Kiev junta’
In a video posted on the internet, an unidentified pro-Russian activist inside the Donetsk government headquarters asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to send “peacekeeping troops” to the region to support their cause.
“Without your support, without the support of Russia, it will be hard for us to resist the Kiev junta on our own,” he said, referring to the interim authorities that took power after the overthrow of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich in February.
Eastern Ukraine was the heartland of support for Yanukovich, who fled to Russia after he was toppled following months of pro-EU protests. About half of the region’s residents are ethnic Russians, many of whom believe Ukraine’s new government is composed of nationalists who will oppress Russians.
Ukraine’s interim authorities say the rights of the ethnic Russian population are being respected and that there has been no evidence of Russians in Ukraine facing harassment.
Interfax cited police in Donetsk as saying an armed group attempted to seize the regional state television broadcaster on Monday. It cited the interior ministry as saying that the gunmen fired into the air, and police and guards in the building returned fire.
“After that, the attackers fled to an unknown location,” police said.
Pro-Russian crowds stormed government buildings in Donetsk, as well as Luhansk and Kharkiv, all cities located in Ukraine’s heavily Russian-speaking east on Sunday. Authorities say all the activists appeared to have been armed.
Ukraine’s Security Service said Saturday that it had detained a 15-strong armed gang that was planning to seize power in the eastern province of Luhansk. The agency said it seized 300 machine guns, an anti-tank grenade launcher, a large number of grenades, five handguns and several firebombs.
It was unclear whether that group was linked to those behind Sunday’s disturbances.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)
Date created : 2014-04-07