Several dozen armed pro-Russia protestors seized two police stations in the eastern Ukrainian towns of Donetsk and Slaviansk Saturday as tensions in the country’s Russian-speaking regions escalated.
On Saturday, armed men took over the police station in the city of Slaviansk, population 120,000.
Several hours later, another group of protestors took over the police station in Donetsk, the regional centre located 90 kilometres to the south of Slaviansk. The AFP reported that the group of roughly 200 protestors were armed with clubs and sticks.
This is a further escalation of action in Donetsk as pro-Russian protesters have occupied a government building for nearly a week.
FRANCE 24's Gulliver Cragg reports from eastern Ukraine
The AFP also reported that protesters met no resistance, and a bus filled with a few dozen anti-riot police who quickly arrived at the scene were seen sporting orange and black ribbons, symbolising support for Russian rule.
In Slaviansk, about 20 men in balaclavas armed with automatic rifles and pistols were guarding the entrance to the Slaviansk police station while another 20 were believed to be inside. They wore St. George’s ribbons, which have become a symbol of pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine. The ribbons were originally associated with the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II.
Eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population, has seen waves of protests since Kremlin-friendly former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in late February. The protesters allege that the authorities who took over are nationalists and “fascists” aiming to suppress ethnic Russians in Ukraine
Crimea, the predominantly ethnic Russian region of the country, already voted in a referendum last month to split off from Ukraine and was subsequently annexed by Russia. The EU and the US denounced both moves as illegitimate.
FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg, reporting from eastern Ukraine, said the recent protests differed from the earlier ones in Maidan that led the the downfall of the Yanukovich government.
“Grievances based on totally inaccurate information are very prominent in the discourse of these separatists. They really do believe that the government in Kiev is made up of fascists and far right parties... which is simply not true,” FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg said. “They also believe that the government in Kiev wants to ban the Russian language, which the government has taken pains to suggest that it does not want to do. They do have some more legitimate worries, however, such as the threat to the economy to this region if IMF loans are imposed.”
Demands for a referendum on joining Russia
A masked guard in Slaviansk, who gave his name only as Sergei, told The Associated Press (AP) that the gunmen have “only one demand: a referendum and joining Russia.”
The man said they seized the building because they wanted to protect it from “the junta who seized power in Kiev.”
“We don’t want to be slaves of America and the West,” he said. “We want to live with Russia.”
Ukraine's Interior Ministry said in a statement that the attackers’ goal was to seize arms from the police station. They said there were about 40 automatic rifles and 400 pistols as well as ammunition inside.
A video from the scene saw one man carrying a sniper rifle. An AP reporter saw another man loading the magazine of a pistol at the police station.
Gunshots rang out in the background in a video from the scene after an armed man shouted to a cameraman to stop recording. No casualties were immediately reported.
In the meantime, local sympathizers brought tires to the police station to start building barricades.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov pledged a “very tough response” to the seizure while local media reported special forces dispatched to the area.
FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg reported a more violent atmosphere to these protests than those held in Kiev several months ago.
“The general level of violence is higher here, there have been fist fights, journalists who’ve had their equipment broken,” he reported. “One journalist had his car torched so there’s a more sinister atmosphere.”
Locals, not Russian nationals
The Kiev authorities and the United States have accused Russia of fomenting the unrest in the east and seeking to use it as a pretext for sending in troops. Russia has massed forces in areas near the Ukrainian border.
But Slaviansk Mayor Nelya Shtepa told the AP that she held talks with the protesters and said they were local residents, not Russians.
“They told me: ‘We don’t have anything against you,’ “ she said, adding that the men said they “want to be heard, want a dialogue with authorities in Kiev.”
Cragg reported protestors in eastern Ukraine are frustrated by lack of recognition.
“The more peaceful protestors involved are very indignant that those who protested on Maidan are being treated by the new Kiev government as heroes, whilst they are being treated as criminal separatists,” he said.
Protesters in Donetsk, who have held the administration building since Sunday, initially called for a referendum on secession but later reduced the demand to a vote on autonomy within Ukraine, with the possibility of holding another later on whether to join Russia.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Friday warned the Ukrainian government against using force against protesters, saying that such action would derail the talks on settling the crisis between the United States, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine set for next week, as well as any other diplomatic efforts.
It lashed out at the US warning to slap more sanctions on Russia in case of an escalation of the conflict, saying that “an escalation is only and exclusively possible if Kiev dares to do so, relying on massive support of the US and the EU.”
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)
Date created : 2014-04-12