LUHANSK: Armed pro-Russia separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk rejected Kiev’s offer of amnesty for those who seized government buildings this week and called on others to defy the pro-European government in Kiev.
Protesters wearing bullet-proof vests and armed with Kalashnikov rifles, pistols and other guns inside the security building, a former KGB headquarters, said they would only lay down their weapons if Kiev agreed to hold a referendum on the future of the region.
“We demand concretely a referendum on federalisation so that the will of the people is heard,” said Aleksei Kolekin, one of the protest leaders barricaded into the five-storey building in Luhansk.
The demands, which echo the steps the Ukrainian territory of Crimea took before it declared independence and voted to join Russia, have been rejected by Kiev, which says the occupations are part of a Russian-led plan to dismember the country.
Tensions have risen in the mainly Russian-speaking east since the overthrow of Ukraine’s Russian-backed president, the installation of a new pro-European government and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, creating the largest confrontation between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Russian agents and special forces of stirring up separatist unrest, which Russia has denied.
In Kiev, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry repeated the threat of force to clear the state buildings.
“We are trying to find a compromise, but the demands put forward by the occupiers are unacceptable. Our aim is to avoid the use of force, but that option remains in place,” Deputy Interior Minister Serhiy Yarovy told journalists.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Wednesday he expected the situation to be brought under control within 48 hours, with force if necessary.
But acting President Oleksandr Turchynov struck a softer tone, saying he hoped to avoid bloodshed and proposed that protesters holding buildings in Luhansk and Donetsk would not be prosecuted if they left the building and surrendered their arms.
Activists at both buildings said they would continue talks with the government, but said the current offer was not enough.
“They offered amnesty, but there is no movement on a referendum for federalisation,” said Alexander Gureyev in Luhansk. “We are not going to accept an amnesty without a referendum,” he said. Reuters