LUHANSK, Ukraine: Hundreds of pro-Russian separatists stormed government buildings across one of Ukraine’s provincial capitals yesterday and opened fire on police holed up in a regional headquarters, a major escalation of the rebellion in defiance of new Western sanctions.
Meanwhile, Russian share prices rose in relief at the mildness of the newly announced US and European sanctions over Moscow’s involvement in the crisis, which amounted mainly to adding a small number of names to existing blacklists while putting off threats to take more serious measures.
Demonstrators smashed their way into the provincial government headquarters in Luhansk, Ukraine’s easternmost province, which abuts the Russian border, and raised separatist flags over the building, while police did nothing to interfere.
As night fell, about 20 rebel gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons and threw stun grenades at the headquarters of the region’s police, trying to force those inside to surrender their weapons, a Reuters photographer at the scene said. “The regional leadership does not control its police force,” said Stanislav Rechynsky, an aide to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, referring to events in Luhansk. “The local police did nothing.”
The rebels also seized the prosecutor’s office and the television centre. The separatist operation in Luhansk appears to give the pro-Moscow rebels control of a second provincial capital. They already control much of neighbouring Donetsk province, where they have proclaimed an independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk” and declared a referendum on secession for May 11.
The rebels include local youths armed with clubs and chains, as well as “green men” - heavily armed masked men in military uniforms without insignia.
Adding control of Luhansk would give them sway over the entire Donbass coalfield —an unbroken swathe of territory adjacent to Russia — where giant steel smelters and heavy plants produce around a third of Ukraine’s industrial output.
It is the heart of an area that Russian President Vladimir Putin described earlier this month as “New Russia”, reviving a term from when the tsars conquered it in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most people who live in the area now identify themselves as Ukrainians but speak Russian as a first language.
Ukraine, a country of 45 million people the size of France, has a thousand-year history as a state but has spent much of the last few centuries under the shadow of its larger neighbour. It emerged as a modern independent nation after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, with borders drawn up by Bolshevik commissars from territory previously ruled by Russia, Poland and Austria.
Its present crisis erupted after a pro-Russian president was toppled in February in a popular uprising. Within days, Putin had declared the right to use military force and had dispatched his undercover troops to seize Crimea. The United States and European Union accuse Moscow of directing the uprising with the intent of dismembering Ukraine, but have made clear they will not take military action.
The US embassy in Kiev described the behaviour of pro-Russian activists, who also violently attacked a rally of Kiev supporters on Monday with clubs and iron bars, and are holding dozens of hostages including seven unarmed European military monitors, as “terrorism, pure and simple”.
US President Barack Obama, announcing new sanctions on Monday, said the measures were intended to change Putin’s “calculus”.
But so far they have shown no sign of restraining the Kremlin leader, who overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy last month to seize and annex Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and has since massed tens of thousands of troops on the frontier. Russia has openly threatened to invade to protect Russian speakers, though it denies that it plans to do so.Reuters