Ukraine says the seizure of public buildings in its mainly
Russian-speaking industrial heartland on Sunday night is a replay of
events in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Moscow annexed last month.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said protesters in the town of
Kharkiv had been cleared in a lightning, 18 minute "anti-terrorist"
operation, pinning responsibility for the building's occupation on
Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's ousted Moscow-backed
president Viktor Yanukovich.
"All this (in Kharkiv) was inspired and financed by the
Putin-Yanukovich group," said Avakov.
NATO warned Moscow on Tuesday of "grave consequences" to its
relationship with the West if it intervened further in Ukraine.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed U.S.
accusations that Moscow was destabilising Ukraine, saying the
situation could improve only if the interests of Russian speakers
were taken into account.
The pro-Russian protesters have been demanding that referendums be
held on whether to join Russia like the vote, dismissed by the Kiev
and West as illegal, that endorsed Crimea's return to rule by
An aide to Avakov said police went in when the Kharkiv protesters
failed to give themselves up and surrender their arms. No shots were
fired by the police, although some had been from the other side and
a grenade was thrown, he said. One police officer was badly wounded
and some others less seriously hurt.
The standoff however continued in the mining center of Donetsk — Yanukovich's home base — where a group of pro-Russian deputies
inside the main regional authority building on Monday declared a
Ukraine has been in turmoil since late last year when Yanukovich
rejected closer relations with the European Union and tilted the
former Soviet republic back towards Moscow. That provoked mass
protests in which more than 100 people were killed by police and
which drove Yanukovich from office in February, leading to Kiev's
loss of control in Crimea.
Police say that in a third protest in the city of Luhansk pro-Russia
activists inside the main state security building have seized
There was no clear sign that further police operations were imminent
in these two cities. "We hope the buildings occupied in Donetsk and
Luhansk will soon be freed," acting president Oleksander Turchinov
Numbers of protesters involved appear to be small and Ukrainian
nationalists, who believe the operations are being coordinated from
Russia, say protesters occupying the buildings have been helped by
the inaction of corrupt local police.
In Donetsk, steel-and-energy tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's
richest man, is mediating with the protesters, but he may have
complicated the plans of the authorities by publicly urging
authorities not to use force as a solution.
But authorities may anyway have decided not to tempt action by
Moscow and hold back and wait for the protests to fizzle out.
The West has expressed concern about what it says has been a buildup
of Russian forces along the border with Ukraine. Moscow has said the
troops are merely taking part in exercises but NATO
Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged caution.
"If Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine it would be a
historic mistake," he told a news conference in Paris. "It would
have grave consequences for our relationship with Russia and would
further isolate Russia internationally."
Lavrov denied responsibility for the trouble in Russian-speaking
areas of Ukraine. "One should not seek to put the blame on someone
else," he told a new conference in Moscow.
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"We are deeply convinced ... that the situation cannot be calmed
down and changed into national dialogue if the Ukrainian authorities
go on ignoring the interests of the southeastern regions of the
On Tuesday about 200 people were gathered in front of the building
in Donetsk and a group of National Guard were standing to one side.
But the situation was calm and there was no sign of any attempt to
enter by force.
In Kharkiv, where the "anti-terrorist" operation
was carried out, Ukrainian special forces in combat gear, helmets
and balaclavas and carrying machine guns stood guard early outside
the building whose outside windows were broken. A partly destroyed
sign near the main door read: "Avakov — to jail".
Avakov's ministry said the 70 detained were suspected of "illegal
activity related to separatism, the organisation of mass disorder,
damage to human health" and breaking other laws.
Turchinov said on Monday that Moscow was attempting to repeat "the
Crimea scenario" in which pro-Russian forces seized the local
parliament and bulldozed through the referendum, clearing the way
for Russia to annex the peninsula.
Unlike in Crimea, where ethnic Russians form a majority, most people
in the east and south are ethnically Ukrainian, although they speak
Russian as a first language.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Lavrov in a phone call on
Monday that Washington was watching events in eastern Ukraine with
great concern and any further moves by Moscow to destabilise Ukraine
would "incur further costs for Russia".
Kerry "called on Russia to publicly disavow the activities of
separatists, saboteurs and provocateurs" in Ukraine, the State
WHITE HOUSE WARNING
The White House warned Putin against moving "overtly or covertly"
into eastern Ukraine and said there was strong evidence that
pro-Russian demonstrators in the region were being paid.
Keeping up pressure on Kiev on Tuesday, the Russian foreign ministry
called on Ukraine to stop massing military forces it said were
tasked with suppressing anti-government protests.
The dispute has raised fears that Russia might restrict its gas
supplies to Ukraine's crippled economy. Russian producer Gazprom
confirmed Ukraine had failed to pay for its March supplies but did
not say whether the company would take any action against Kiev.
Gazprom cut off supplies to Kiev during price disputes in the
winters of 2008/2009 and 2005/2006, disrupting the flow of Russian
gas to the EU that is carried via Ukraine. Gazprom said gas transit
via Ukraine to Europe remained stable on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Vladimir Soldatkin and
Denis Pinchuk in Moscow; John Irish in Paris; writing by Richard Balmforth; editing by David Stamp)
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