ODESSA/SLAVIANSK: At least 42 people were killed in a street battle between supporters and opponents of Russia in southern Ukraine that ended with dozens of pro-Russian protesters incinerated in a burning building, bringing the country closer to war.
Pro-Russian rebels in the east freed seven European military observers yesterday after holding them hostage for eight days, while Kiev pressed on with its biggest military operation so far to reclaim rebel-held territory in the area.
The riot in the Black Sea port of Odessa, ending in a deadly blaze in a besieged trade union building, was by far the worst incident in Ukraine since a February uprising that ended with a pro-Russian president fleeing the country.
It also spread the violence from the eastern separatist heartland to an area far from the Russian frontier, raising the prospect of unrest sweeping more broadly across a country of around 45 million people the size of France.
The Kremlin, which has massed tens of thousands of soldiers on the Ukraine’s eastern border and proclaims the right to invade to protect Russian speakers, said the government in Kiev and its Western backers were responsible for the deaths.
Kiev said the violence was provoked by foreign demonstrators sent in from Transdniestria, a nearby breakaway pro-Russian region of Moldova where Moscow has a military garrison. It said most of the dead who had been identified so far were from there.
Yesterday morning, people placed flowers near the burnt-out doors of the trade union building, lighting candles and putting up the yellow, white and red flag of the city. About 2,000 pro-Russian protesters outside the burnt-out building chanted “Odessa is a Russian city”.
The remains of a tented camp of pro-Russian demonstrators nearby had been swept away. At the nearby hospital, residents queued up to offer blood.
Oleg Konstantinov, a journalist covering the events for a local Internet site, said bullets had flown in the melee before the blaze: “I was hit in the arm, then I started crawling, and then got hit in the back and leg.”
The Odessa bloodshed came on the same day that Kiev launched its biggest push yet to reassert its control over separatist areas in the east, hundreds of kilometres away, where armed pro-Russian rebels have proclaimed a “People’s Republic of Donetsk”.
The rebels there aim to hold a referendum on May 11 on secession from Ukraine, similar to one staged in March in Ukraine’s Crimea region, which was seized and annexed by Russia in a move that overturned the post-Cold War diplomatic order.
Yesterday the government said it was pressing on with the offensive in the area for a second day, and had recaptured a television tower and a security services building from rebels in Kramatorsk, a town near the rebel stronghold of Slaviansk.
“We are not stopping,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a post on Facebook. “The active phase of the operation continued at dawn.”
Rebels in Slaviansk, their most heavily fortified redoubt, shot down two Ukrainian helicopters on Friday, killing two crew, and stalled an advance by Ukrainian troops in armoured vehicles. Separatists said three fighters and two civilians were killed in Friday’s Ukrainian advance on the town.
Vasyl Krutov, head of a government “anti-terrorist centre” behind the operation in the east, told a news conference there was gunfire and fighting around Kramatorsk: “What we are facing in the Donetsk region and in the eastern regions is not just some kind of short-lived uprising, it is in fact a war.”
The military operation in the east was overshadowed by the unprecedented violence in Odessa, a vibrant multi-ethnic port city that has seen some support for separatists but nothing like the riots that erupted on Friday.
Police said four people were killed, at least three shot dead, and dozens wounded in running battles between people backing Kiev and pro-Russian activists. The clashes ended with separatists holed up in the trade union building. Video footage showed petrol bombs exploding against its walls.
At least 37 people died in the blaze. Yesterday, police raised the overall death toll in the city to 42. It was easily the biggest death toll since about 100 people were killed in Kiev protests that toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich in February.
“Kiev and its Western sponsors are practically provoking the bloodshed and bear direct responsibility for it,” RIA Novosti quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as telling reporters.
Kiev’s Interior Ministry blamed the pro-Russian protesters, saying they had attacked the pro-Ukrainians before retreating to the trade union headquarters, from where they opened fire on the crowd and threw out the petrol bombs that caused the blaze.