Pro-Russian gunmen seize key buildings in eastern Ukraine

Armed pro-Russian activists in Slavyansk

Armed pro-Russian activists guard a police station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk. Photograph: Anatoliy Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images

Gunmen have seized a police station and other government buildings in Ukraine‘s eastern industrial heartland amid a tense deadlock in the country’s east, where armed pro-Russian protesters have barricaded themselves inside government buildings and demanded independence from Kiev.

Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said another group of gunmen tried to storm the Donetsk regional prosecutor’s office but was repelled.

The early morning raid on the police station happened in Slavyansk, a town about 35 miles north of the regional capital, Donetsk. The men collected weapons and distributed them to their supporters. A second group later took the headquarters of the state security service.

“Armed men in camouflage fatigues have taken the police station in Slavyansk,” Avakov wrote on his Facebook page. “Here, our response will be very severe.”

A local police official told Kiev’s private Channel 5 television that the raid was staged by six men who had fired several shots into the air before storming the station. It was not immediately clear how the local police responded or whether the gunmen had taken any hostages.

 

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Voice of America

Ukraine Accuses Russia of ‘Aggression’

Henry Ridgwell

— Ukraine says Saturday’s attacks by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine are “an act of external aggression” by Russia, and security officials are preparing to implement “an operational response plan.”

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov’s evaluation appeared on Facebook Saturday, shortly after armed militants with Russian weapons seized more government buildings in the Russian-speaking east, including police headquarters in Donetsk and Kramatorsk.

Witnesses, including western journalists, say the Kramatorsk facility was captured after a firefight, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.

Armed men stand in front of police headquarters in Slaviansk, April 12, 2014.Armed men stand in front of police headquarters in Slaviansk, April 12, 2014.

The takeover of police facilities in Donetsk prompted the city’s police chief to resign, while elsewhere, Western news accounts late Saturday said militants controlled the eastern city of Sloviansk.

Moscow has repeatedly denied any role in Ukraine’s unrest, which erupted in full two months ago, when anti-Russian protesters in Kyiv forced then-president Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country.

US reaction

Meanwhile, the United States has called on Russia to “cease all efforts” to destabilize Ukraine.  A White House National Security Council spokeswoman said Saturday the United States is concerned that Russian separatists — with apparent support from Moscow — are “inciting violence and sabotage” against the Ukrainian state.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the State Department said.

“During the call Kerry expressed strong concern that attacks today by armed militants in eastern Ukraine were orchestrated and synchronized, similar to previous attacks in eastern Ukraine and Crimea,” said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Militants were equipped with specialized Russian weapons and the same uniforms as those worn by the Russian forces that invaded Crimea. The secretary made clear that if Russia did not take steps to de-escalate in eastern Ukraine and move its troops back from Ukraine’s border, there would be additional consequences,” the official added.

The official did not state what those consequences would be.

US officials met Friday with Ukrainian finance officials to discuss a “range of strategic and economic issues” according to a State Department statement.

 

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A resident passed food to a pro-Russian militant at a police station in Slovyansk. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — The Ukrainian government on Sunday for the first time sent its security services to confront armed pro-Russian militants in the country’s east, defying warnings from Russia. Commandos engaged in gunfights with men who had set up roadblocks and stormed a Ukrainian police station in Slovyansk, and at least one officer was killed, Ukrainian officials said.

Several officers were injured in the operation, as were four locals, the officials said. Russian news media and residents here disputed that account, saying the Ukrainian forces had only briefly engaged one checkpoint.

In either case, the central government in Kiev has turned to force to try to restore its authority in the east, a course of action that the Russian government has repeatedly warned against.

With tens of thousands of Russian troops massed along Ukraine’s eastern border near Donetsk, Western leaders have worried that Moscow might use unrest in Ukraine’s mainly Russian-speaking areas as a pretext for an invasion.

Both governments intensified their statements on Sunday. Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, issued another ultimatum, saying separatists should vacate occupied buildings by Monday or face a “large-scale antiterrorist operation” that would include the Ukrainian military. And Russia claimed that the Ukrainian government was cracking down at the behest of American and European officials.

Ukraine’s ousted president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, speaking late Sunday in Rostov-on-Don, in Russia, echoed Moscow’s charges of American meddling.

Insisting that he remained Ukraine’s commander in chief despite having fled to Russia more than a month ago, he ordered Ukrainian troops to defy what he called “criminal orders” for a crackdown and said the country stood “on the brink of civil war.”

The police station contested by Ukrainian forces was one of several security centers in the eastern region of Donetsk that were seized on Saturday by masked gunmen in coordinated raids that the Ukrainian authorities denounced as Russian “aggression.”

Photo

Residents gathered as protesters guarded a fortified barricade set up at the entrance. At least one officer was killed when Ukrainian armed forces stormed the station on Sunday, officials said. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

By Sunday afternoon, the government’s push to reassert its authority in a vitally important industrial and coal-mining region appeared to have made little headway. Pro-Russian protesters appeared to control not only the police station but also the entire town of Slovyansk, having set up checkpoints at major streets leading into town.

The protesters blocked a major highway in the east, and flags of Russia and their newly declared and unrecognized People’s Republic of Donetsk flew over administrative buildings in several other midsize towns. These included Mariupol, where protesters seized a building Sunday.

Roman Svitan, a security adviser to the Ukrainian authorities in Donetsk, said the operation on Sunday was carried out by Alfa, a special services unit of Ukraine’s state security service. He gave an upbeat assessment of its progress, saying Ukrainian forces had evicted gunmen from the Slovyansk Police Headquarters, though protesters there said nothing of the sort had happened.

Mr. Svitan said most of the expelled gunmen were local pro-Russian extremists, but they had also included Russian operatives.

Residents and men standing by barricades in Slovyansk denied that Ukrainian forces had even entered the town on Sunday. They said one local man who had been out fishing was in a hospital with a wound from a shooting on a highway outside town. Russian television and some locals said the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector had attacked protesters at a checkpoint, injuring the fisherman.

Requests to speak to a leader of the armed men produced a man wearing a ski mask who introduced himself as Aleksandr and described himself as a deputy commander of the city of Slovyansk after its merger with the People’s Republic of Donetsk.

 

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Voice  Of America

Gunmen Seize Another Building in Ukraine, Gas Payments to Russia Suspended

Pro-Russian militants have extended their takeovers of public buildings in eastern Ukraine.

The regional interior ministry says gunmen have seized a state security building in Slovyansk.

Earlier Saturday, armed men seized a police station in the city. A VOA correspondent in the region says the militants took about 400 weapons from the station.

Meanwhile, pro-Russian protesters continue to occupy government buildings in the regional capital Donetsk and in Luhansk. Kyiv has offered concessions to the protesters and regional leaders, after its Friday deadline passed for separatists to vacate the buildings.

Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said he supported amending Ukraine’s constitution and changing laws so regional governors are no longer appointed by the central government, and regional referendums are permitted. He also promised no one would be allowed to “limit the Russian language and the right to speak it in Ukraine.”

NATO says there has been a buildup of Russian military forces along the border with Ukraine recently.

 

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