KIEV: Ukraine’s armed forces are on “full combat alert” against a possible Russian invasion, Kiev said yesterday, as authorities admitted they were “helpless” to prevent pro-Kremlin insurgents tightening their grip on the increasingly chaotic east of the country.
Rebels stormed the regional police building and town hall in the eastern Ukrainian city of Gorlivka, local officials said, adding to more than a dozen locations already under their control.
The new seizure followed clashes in nearby Lugansk on Tuesday, as hundreds of pro-Russia protesters spearheaded by a heavily armed mob attacked the police station.
Yesterday, the rebels lifted their siege of the HQ building after the police chief promised to step down.
In another apparent gain for the rebels, local media reported pro-Russian militants had seized the council building in the city of Alchevsk without encountering resistance.
Ukraine’s interim president Oleksandr Turchynov told his cabinet that the nation’s law enforcement bodies were “helpless” to prevent the insurgents storming official buildings in the restive east.
He said the nation’s armed forces have been put on “full combat alert” in the face of what he called a “real threat” of Russia starting a war against the former Soviet Republic.
Turchynov urged Ukrainian “patriots” to bolster the beleaguered police force, which he has criticised for “inaction and in some cases treachery”.
His priority was to prevent “terrorism” spreading in the restive east, where he said some police officers were even cooperating with the separatists.
He warned also that there could be “acts of sabotage” by Russia during public holidays at the beginning of May.
The defence ministry announced that the security services would hold drills in central Kiev overnight but this was not expected to involve military hardware. Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who is a frontrunner for presidential elections on May 25, said Russia had already started an “undeclared war” against her country.
The West has accused Russia of fomenting the crisis and backing the rebels and has imposed sanctions to try to get Moscow to back down.
The United States and EU members see the insurgency as a bid to destabilise Ukraine ahead of the elections but Moscow denies it has a hand in the rebellion.
President Vladimir Putin insisted late Tuesday that there were “neither Russian instructors, nor special units, nor troops” operating in Ukraine.
The separatists have vowed to hold a referendum on closer ties with Russia on May 11.
And Denis Pushilin, one of the leaders of the self-declared Donetsk Republic, told reporters on a trip to Moscow that the eastern Ukrainian region will not take part in the May 25 presidential polls.
Meanwhile, negotiations continued to secure the freedom of seven European monitors from the OSCE as the rebel leader holding them said they would be released “at the first opportunity”.
“The dialogue is constructive. We understand each other,” the self-styled mayor of the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told reporters.
Talks are dragging on for “technical reasons,” he added, without elaborating.
Michael Bociurkiw, an OSCE spokesman, told reporters in nearby Donetsk that the held men were “in good health” but added: “As the days roll on, you become increasingly concerned about their well-being.”
Putin said he hoped the team from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe would soon be able to “freely leave the territory” of Ukraine.
But he laid the blame for the detentions squarely at Kiev’s door.
Officials, he said, “should have understood that they (the OSCE inspectors) were entering a conflict zone, a region of the country that does not recognise the authorities’ legitimacy”.