Scores of people detained in Odessa after Friday clashes have been released, Ukraine's interior ministry said, after hundreds of pro-Russian activists attacked a police station in the southern port city on Sunday in a bid to free their comrades.
The activists forced open the gate and broke windows in a bid to gain access to the police building.
In a bid to calm the mob, police released dozens of the pro-Russians who had been arrested Friday during running battles with supporters of the pro-Western government in Kiev. The interior ministry said in a statement that 67 people had been released.
"They were simply released under pressure from those pro-Russian demonstrators," said FRANCE 24's Gulliver Cragg, reporting from Odessa.
Some officers were offered the black and orange St. George’s ribbon, a Russian military insignia that has become a symbol of the revolt, and were cheered by a crowd of several hundred.
The seige of the police station was the latest violence to hit the city in three days of unrest. Deadly clashes erupted Friday as Ukrainian forces pressed on with an offensive against pro-Russian separatists in the east and have been viewed as a measure of just how far the country’s crisis has spun out of control. Located on the Black Sea, Odessa is more than 500 kilometres (around 310 miles) from separatist-controlled cities in eastern Ukraine such as Slaviansk and Donetsk, where most of the unrest has been concentrated.
Violent street battles
The situation in Odessa took a violent turn after a group of football fans, chanting support for Ukraine’s leaders, clashed with another group of men, dressed in black. Chaotic scenes ensued, during which petrol bombs were reportedly thrown and shots were heard.
At least 42 people were killed in the ensuing street battles, authorities said, at least 37 of whom died after retreating into the trade union building, which later caught on fire. While most of the victims apparently succumbed to burns or smoke inhalation, some were reported to have jumped to their deaths.
On Saturday morning, dozens of people placed flowers near the burnt-out doors of the trade union building, lighting candles and putting up the yellow, white and red flag of the city. About 2,000 pro-Russian protesters outside the building chanted “Odessa is a Russian city”.
Ukraine’s government said the violence was provoked by foreign demonstrators sent in from Transdniestria, a breakaway pro-Russian region of Moldova where Russia has a military garrison. Kiev said most of the dead who had been identified so far were from that region.
The Kremlin, however, blamed Ukraine’s government.
“Kiev and its Western sponsors are practically provoking the bloodshed and bear direct responsibility for it,” RIA Novosti quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as telling reporters.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk told a news conference on Sunday that "Russia's aim was to repeat in Odessa what is happening in the east of the country".
Yatseniuk has been pointedly critical of the Odessa police’s handling of the situation, and on Saturday, the city’s police chief was fired. Yatseniuk has said that other changes in the police leadership are planned.
“If the law enforcement system in Odessa had worked not exclusively on the ‘Seventh Kilometre’ and had protected people, then these terrorist organisations would have been foiled,” he said during a speech in the Black Sea port.
The Seventh Kilometre is an open market on the edge of Odessa, associated in the popular consciousness with the corruption and black market business that have blighted Ukraine’s 23 years of post-Soviet independence.
The city’s new police chief Ivan Katerinchuk on Sunday addressed hundreds of supporters of the Kiev authorities who had gathered near the site of the blaze late on Sunday, vowing to bring those behind Friday’s deaths to justice, whatever their allegiance.
“Like you, I want to restore law and order to Ukraine,” he said.
The Ukrainian army, meanwhile, is continuing its offensive against pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, tightening its grip on the restive town of Slaviansk and blocking access to the main road into the city, the pro-Russian rebels in control of the town said on Sunday.
"The town is completely surrounded," a rebel spokeswoman, Stella Khorocheva, told AFP.
Witneses outside the city saw seven Ukrainian armoured vehicles setting up a checkpoint along the route to the regional capital, Donetsk.
Ukrainian forces have reportedly also retaken control of a television tower and a security services building in the town of Kramatorsk, just south of Slaviansk.
Pro-Russian separatists in Slaviansk on Saturday released seven military observers working for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as five Ukrainian assistants, who had been seized the week before.
But despite the gains by Ukrainian forces, many pro-Russian separatists have not budged from their positions, according to FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Ukraine, Douglas Herbert.
“I was at checkpoints on the outskirts of Kramatorsk, where the separatists were very much still dug in. We saw Ukrainian helicopters flying low in the skies over the region, but the separatists were going nowhere. They were well-armed and they’re very much determined,” Herbert reported Sunday from Donetsk.
Herbert also said that there is only so much Ukraine’s forces can do in the east if they want to avoid a broader conflict. Since the crisis began, Russia has massed tens of thousands of soldiers on the border with Ukraine, proclaiming it has the right to invade to protect Russian speakers if needed.
Western countries have accused Russia of stoking the unrest in eastern Ukraine and fear Moscow may be planning to repeat its annexation of Crimea in other parts of the country. Russia has denied the allegations.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)
FRANCE 24's Douglas Herbert briefly detained after shots ring out in Lugansk
Date created : 2014-05-04