ODESSA: Thousands of pro-Russian protesters assaulted Odessa’s police headquarters yesterday, days after deadly clashes and a fire there killed dozens of their comrades in what Kiev charged was a Russian plot to “destroy Ukraine”.
The unrest in the southern port city threatened a new front in the Ukrainian government’s battle against pro-Moscow militants, with an expanded military operation under way in the east against gunmen holding more than a dozen towns.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russia was executing a plan “to destroy Ukraine and its statehood”. He was in Odessa to observe mourning for the 42 people who died there in clashes and the fire on Friday — most of them pro-Russian militants.
The unrest shaking the Black Sea city of one million people, he said, aimed “to repeat in Odessa what is happening in the east of the country”. In an effort to head off any retribution on the streets for Friday’s bloodshed, Yatsenyuk sacked Odessa’s police chiefs and ordered an inquiry.
The police in the headquarters managed to calm the crowd outside by releasing 67 pro-Russian militants they were holding, nearly half the 150 total who had been arrested in Friday’s clashes. One person, though, was reported wounded by gunshot in the city.
Although Moscow has admitted sending troops into Crimea ahead of annexing the strategic peninsula in March, it denies having a hand in Ukraine’s unrest in the east and in Odessa. Instead it blames the Kiev government and its Western backers for the carnage.
Moscow has also demanded a halt to the Ukrainian military offensive in the east, saying it has received “thousands” of calls for help from the population there for it to intervene.
Tens of thousands of Russian troops have been parked on Ukraine’s border for two months, ready for an invasion Russian President Vladimir Putin says he has a right to launch — but “hopes” he won’t have to.
But Ukrainian officials have pushed on with the operation, determined to crush the pro-Kremlin rebels. Late yesterday, a spokeswoman for rebels in the insurgent-controlled bastion of Slavyansk said “the town is completely surrounded”.
Witnesses observed seven armoured vehicles blocking the last main route out, the road to the regional hub of Donetsk.
Ukrainian authorities have already put all armed forces on “combat alert” and brought back conscription as the risk of invasion looms. The three-day death toll from the eastern offensive meanwhile stood at 10 at least as soldiers confronted gunmen in towns around Slavyansk.
Witnesses near the eastern town of Kostyantynivka saw a pro-Russian checkpoint abandoned and smouldering while barricades were hastily erected in the centre. Rebels defending Kostyantynivka said there had been fighting overnight near the town’s television tower.
In nearby Kramatorsk, pro-Russians were holed up in the town hall while burned-out trolley buses and minivans blocked off streets in the city centre.
But in the centre of besieged Slavyansk, the situation remained relatively calm. Some of its 160,000 citizens reported increasing difficulty obtaining basic foodstuffs. In annexed Crimea there were clashes between police and 2,000 pro-Kiev Tatars demonstrating against Russia’s refusal to allow their leader Mustafa Dzhemilev into the peninsula.
Ukraine’s violence sparked a new round of accusations and counter-accusations between the United States and Moscow as relations between the Cold War foes continued to suffer. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called his US counterpart John Kerry to demand Washington use its influence over Kiev to stop what he called Ukraine’s “war against its own people”.