Police detained 70 pro-Moscow protesters occupying a regional administration building in eastern Ukraine overnight, but others held out in a standoff in two further cities in what Kiev says is a Russian-led plan to dismember the country.
Ukraine says the seizure of public buildings in its mainly Russian-speaking industrial heartland on Sunday night is a replay of events in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Moscow annexed last month.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said protesters in the town of Kharkiv had been cleared in a lightning, 18-minute “anti-terrorist” operation, pinning responsibility for the building’s occupation on Russian President Vladimir Putin and Moscow-backed ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
“All this [in Kharkiv] was inspired and financed by the Putin-Yanukovych group,” Avakov said.
NATO warned Moscow yesterday of “grave consequences” to its relationship with the West if it intervened further in Ukraine, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed US accusations that Moscow was destabilizing Ukraine, saying the situation could improve only if the interests of Russian speakers were taken into account.
The pro-Russian protesters have been demanding that referendums be held on whether to join Russia like the vote, dismissed by the Kiev and West as illegal, that endorsed Crimea’s return to rule by Moscow.
An aide to Avakov said police went in when the Kharkiv protesters failed to give themselves up and surrender their arms. No shots were fired by the police, although some had been from the other side and a grenade was thrown, he said. One police officer was badly wounded and some others less seriously hurt.
However, the standoff continued in the mining center of Donetsk — Yanukovych’s home base — where a group of pro-Russian deputies inside the main regional authority building on Monday declared a separatist republic.
Ukraine has been in turmoil since late last year when Yanukovych rejected closer relations with the EU and tilted the former Soviet republic back toward Moscow. That provoked mass protests in which more than 100 people were killed by police and which drove Yanukovych from office in February, leading to Kiev’s loss of control in Crimea.
Police say that in a third protest in the city of Luhansk, pro-Russia activists inside the main state security building have seized weapons.
“We hope the buildings occupied in Donetsk and Luhansk will soon be freed,” Ukrainian Acting President Oleksander Turchinov said.
The numbers of protesters involved appeared to be small and nationalists, who believe the operations are being coordinated by Russia, say protesters occupying the buildings have been helped by the inaction of corrupt local police officers.
In Donetsk, steel-and-energy tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, is mediating with the protesters.
The West has expressed concern about what it says has been a buildup of Russian forces along the border with Ukraine. Moscow has said the troops are merely taking part in exercises, but NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged caution.
“If Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine it would be a historic mistake,” he told a press conference in Paris. “It would have grave consequences for our relationship with Russia and would further isolate Russia internationally.”