Fighting continued near the eastern city of Slaviansk where
Ukrainian troops have been, somewhat tentatively, pressing a
campaign to end pro-Russian rebellion. A Reuters correspondent said
gunfire seemed to be coming closer to the city center.
The violence in Odessa, a southwestern port with a broad ethnic mix
from Russians and Ukrainians to Georgians and Tatars, is seen as
something as a turning point in Kiev; a warning of dangers if
rebellion spreads beyond the Russian-speaking east.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the new Odessa force was based
on "civil activists who wanted to help the Black Sea city "in these
difficult days". The entire leadership of the local police had been
sacked and could face criminal action.
The Odessa violence was the deadliest since Moscow-oriented
president Viktor Yanukovich fled to Russia in February and
pro-Russian militants launched uprisings in the industrial east.
"The police in Odessa acted outrageously, possibly in a criminal
fashion," Avakov said on his Facebook page. "The 'honor of the
uniform' will offer no cover."
Ukrainian leaders have made it clear they see the police force
across wide areas of the country as unreliable in the face of
rebellion they say is backed by Moscow and led on the ground by
Russian special forces. The units Avakov referred to emerged partly
from the uprising against Yanukovich early this year.
That could fuel anger among the government's opponents, who accuse
it of promoting "fascist" militant groups, such as Right Sector,
which took part in the Kiev uprising over the winter.
Loss of control of Odessa would be a huge economic and political
blow for Kiev, which accuses Moscow of scheming to dismember
Ukraine, a country the size of France.
Odessa, a city of a million people, with a grand history as the
cosmopolitan southern gateway for the tsars' empire, has two ports,
including an oil terminal, and is a key transport hub.
It would also heighten Western concern that Ukraine, already
culturally divided between an industrial, Russian-speaking east and
a more westward looking west, could disintegrate. As well as
humanitarian problems that could entail, neighboring NATO and EU
countries would face a deep crisis in relations with Moscow, which
supplies much of Western countries' energy via Ukraine.
Kiev's anger on Monday focused on the Odessa police decision to
release 67 largely pro-Russian militants after supporters besieged
and stormed a police station on Sunday.
The crowd of several hundred chanted "Odessa is a Russian city!"
Russian is the first language of many of its residents.
The militants had been arrested on Friday after hours of clashes,
with the use of petrol bombs and small arms, on the streets of the
Black Sea city. Pro-Russian supporters withdrew to a building that
later burnt down with the loss of over 40 people - bloodshed that
Moscow blames on Kiev's "provocations".
The exact circumstances of the blaze remain unclear but the deaths
have become a cause célèbre for anti-Kiev activists across the south
Avakov said other detainees had been transferred away from Odessa in
the night to more central areas of Ukraine to prevent any premature
[to top of second column]
Germany's foreign minister said on Sunday he was pressing for a
second international conference at Geneva to bring Russia and
Ukraine together with the United States and European Union to settle
the dispute. Moscow and Kiev accuse each other of wrecking a
four-way accord to end the conflict signed at Geneva on April 17.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel
discussed the Ukraine crisis in a telephone call and stressed the
importance of "effective international action" to reduce tension,
the Kremlin said on Sunday.
A German government spokeswoman said they had also discussed a visit
to Moscow on Wednesday by the head of the OSCE, the European
security body which has been trying to mediate on the ground but saw
some of its monitors held for a week by rebels.
Addressing hundreds of supporters of the Kiev authorities who
gathered near the site of the blaze late on Sunday, newly appointed
police chief Ivan Katerinchuk promised to bring those behind
Friday's deaths to justice, whatever their allegiance.
"Glory to the Ukraine!" he said in a declaration redolent of the
Kiev uprising against Yanukovich early this year.
"Like you, I want to restore law and order to Ukraine."
NATO commanders have said Russia might hope to control a swathe of
southern and eastern Ukraine, including the annexed Crimea
peninsula, all the way to the border with Transdniestria, the
breakaway, pro-Moscow sliver of Moldova, just 50 km (30 miles) from
Odessa, which is home to a Russian military base.
As well as crippling Ukraine, this would secure Russia additional
warm water ports.
Kiev is organizing a presidential election for May 25.
However, as things stand, it would have trouble conducting the vote
in many parts of the east, a circumstance that would allow Russia to
declare any government emerging as bereft of legitimacy.
Russia denies ambitions to seize eastern Ukraine as it has annexed
the Crimea peninsula but reserves the right to send troops to defend
Russian-speakers if it deems necessary.
Separatists who have declared a "People's Republic of Donetsk" are
planning a referendum on secession next Sunday.
The capital Kiev has remained quiet since the protests that forced
Yanukovich to flee to Russia. But celebrations this week marking the
anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War Two could be a source
(Additional reporting by Ralph Boulton, Natalia Zinets and Elizabeth
Piper in Kiev, Maria Tsvetkova in Slaviansk and Matt Robinson in
Donetsk; Writing by Ralph Boulton; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
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