SLAVIANSK/KIEV: Pro-Russian separatists yesterday ignored an ultimatum to leave occupied government buildings in eastern Ukraine while another group of rebels attacked a police headquarters as a threatened military offensive by government forces failed to materialise.
Rebels in the town of Slaviansk, which was expected to be the focus of a broad government “anti-terrorist” operation involving the army, issued a bold call for Russian President Vladimir Putin to help them.
Ukraine’s interim president Oleksander Turchinov said yesterday that the offensive would still go ahead. But in a sign of discord behind the scenes in Kiev, he sacked the state security chief in charge of the operation.
Turchinov also took a risky step to try to undercut rebels’ demands by holding out the prospect of a referendum on the future shape of the Ukrainian state. He suggested a nationwide referendum could be held at the same time as a presidential election on May 25.
Pro-Russian secessionists want referendums to be held, but only in their regions in the east, which Kiev says is illegal.
The uprising by armed men in uniform who have seized buildings in towns across eastern Ukraine began eight days ago and has accelerated in the past 48 hours, with separatists seizing ever more buildings on behalf of a self-proclaimed independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk”.
Kiev says the separatists are organised by Moscow and include Russian troops in their midst, openly seeking to repeat the seizure of the Crimea region, which Moscow occupied and annexed last month.
Russia says the armed men are all locals acting on their own but it retains the right to intervene to protect them. Nato says Russia has tens of thousands of troops massed on the frontier.
The European Union threatened Russia with more sanctions. Britain said Moscow was clearly behind Ukraine’s instability, although other EU states said diplomacy should be given more time. As the 0600 GMT deadline issued by authorities in Kiev expired, witnesses in the flashpoint city of Slaviansk, where armed men had seized two government buildings, saw nothing to show the rebels were obeying the ultimatum.
One of the rebel leaders, in an appeal issued through journalists, asked Putin to “help us as much as you can”. The Kremlin said the Russian president was listening.
“Unfortunately, there’s a great many such appeals coming from the Eastern Ukrainian regions addressed directly to Putin to intervene in this or that form,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “The president is watching the developments in Eastern Ukraine with great concern.”
Also in Slaviansk, about 150km from the Russian border, a small airfield which was occupied by Ukrainian air force planes on Sunday was empty yesterday and pro-separatist forces said they were now in control of it.
In the town of Horlivka, meanwhile, about 100 pro-Russian separatists attacked the police headquarters. Video footage on Ukrainian television showed an ambulance treating people apparently injured in the attack.
In all, separatists have seized government buildings and security facilities in 10 cities, adding to a growing sense that Ukraine’s industrial heartland is slipping out of its grip.
Angered by the death of a state security officer and the wounding of two comrades near Slaviansk, Turchinov warned rebels that an anti-terrorist operation involving the army would begin unless they laid down their arms.
Russia’s foreign ministry called the planned military operation a “criminal order” and said the West should bring its allies in Ukraine’s government under control. Outside the Slaviansk city council offices stood a group of about 12 armed men in matching camouflage fatigues with black masks, one of whom was holding a Russian flag.
They said they were Cossacks — paramilitary fighters descended from Tsarist-era border patrolmen — but did not say where from. One said: “The borders between Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are artificial and we are here to take them away.”
The new element in the operation announced by Turchinov is the inclusion of the army which until now had not been involved in more than four months of turmoil and is untested in dealing with internal disorder.