Approximately 20 pro-Russian separatists were reportedly killed in clashes with Ukrainian security forces on Friday, as they attempted to seize control of a police headquarters in the eastern port city of Mariupol.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said fighting broke out after “terrorists” tried to storm the building, only to be confronted by government security forces. Some separatists reportedly fled the scene, seeking shelter in the city.
One police officer was killed in the violence, while another five were wounded, Avakov said.
“A terrorist group of about 60 men armed with automatic weapons attacked the police headquarters... About 20 terrorists were destroyed and four taken prisoner,” Avakov said in a statement on his Facebook page. “To those who come with weapons and who shoot and who take hostages, torture them, rob people, hiding behind various slogans - to them there can be only one answer from the Ukrainian state - annihilation”.
The death toll could not be independently verified, and both sides have tended to exaggerate the other’s losses during clashes.
If confirmed, it would be among the heaviest tolls inflicted on pro-Russian separatists during fighting.
Fears of civil war
The fighting came amid international attempts to reach some form of settlement in Ukraine to prevent a slide into a civil war that could have dramatic consequences for the whole region.
Mariupol, an important industrial and shipping centre in the Donetsk region that is planning to hold a secessionist referendum on Sunday, has been the focus of frequent skirmishes in recent days. But Friday’s action appeared to be a concerted effort by several forces to seize back control from rebels.
Friday’s action appeared to be a concerted effort by several branches of Ukrainian forces to demonstrate authority in a town where administrative buildings have changed hands several times since mid-April.
The West and Kiev accuse Russia of working to undermine Ukraine, while the Kremlin accuses them of blocking any attempt at conciliation with the east.
Interfax news agency quoted Miroslav Rudenko, a leader of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, a pro-Russian entity staging this weekend’s referendum, as saying, “After what they (Ukrainian forces) did today in Mariupol, after that number of dead, there can be no talk of peaceful dialogue.”
Elsewhere, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a visit to Crimea on Friday for the first time since his country annexed the autonomous Ukrainian region nearly two months ago.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-05-09