Deadly clashes in eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian militia tighten grip

Ukraine's interior ministry said a soldier died after a firefight with pro-Russian paramilitaries, a day after the seizure of several police stations. NATO says Russian troops are massing on the border. 

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
A pro-Russian gunman stands guard at a seized police station in the eastern Ukraine town of Slovyansk on Sunday, April 13, 2014. Pro-Moscow protesters have seized a number of government buildings in the east over the past week, undermining the authority of the interim government in the capital, Kiev.

Ukrainian security forces on Sunday battled armed pro-Russian men who had stormed a police station in eastern Ukraine, the interior ministry said. The exchange of fire in the city of Slavyansk, which left one security officer dead, was the first reported after a week of tensions over the occupation by pro-Russian separatists of government buildings.

In Donetsk, thousands gathered today to hear belligerent calls to arms amid fears that Russia may be preparing a military offensive. The US accuses Russia of conspiring to destabilize Ukraine as its troops mass on the border. Russia has denied any such military preparations and blamed the chaos on Kiev’s interim government.

For the past week, activists have occupied Donetsk’s main government building and declared a “Donetsk People’s Republic.” The building now resembles a ramshackle military encampment, with snaking razor-wire and tire-barricades. Masked men armed mainly with clubs and truncheons patrol the grounds, while crowds outside wax and wane.

But the uptick in violence points to a deepening crisis for Ukraine ahead of a presidential election due next month. Ties to Russia in this industrial region run deep, as does paranoia among Russian speakers who helped elect ousted former President Victor Yanukovych and who allege discrimination by the new authorities in Kiev. 

Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Sunday that security forces had launched “counterterrorism operations” in Slavyansk. Residents and local journalists reported gun battles in the city center, and video posted online showed helicopter gunships circling overhead. Mr. Avakov later said one security officer had been killed in a firefight, and at least five others wounded, though the circumstances remain unclear.

The Associated Press quoted a regional lawmaker who said he witnessed an attack by four gunmen on Ukrainian soldiers standing beside their vehicles at a checkpoint in Slavyansk. 

Body armor, military rifles

On Saturday, heavily armed masked men stormed police stations and other buildings in Slavyansk and in four other smaller towns outside of Donetsk. The timing of the seizures suggested coordination; some gunmen carried military-grade rifles and body armor and camouflage similar that worn by Russian special forces who helped seize Crimea last month. Most of those armed wore “St. George” ribbons, which are associated with the Soviet victory during World War II.

At the police station in Slavyansk, men erected barricades and raised a Russian flag to replace a Ukrainian one. One man who gave his name as Segei said they had seized the building to protect the community from what he said were radicals from western Ukraine and the “junta” in Kiev.  

“We don’t want to be slaves to America or slaves to the West,” he told reporters inside the seized police station.  

In other nearby town, Kramatorsk, video taken Saturday showed about 10 armed masked men in camouflage uniforms arguing with a group of civilians, before yelling at them and firing scores of rounds into the air. The men then stormed a police station.

Billboard defaced

Residents in Donetsk, a city of 1 million people, seem mostly indifferent or ambivalent towards the administrative building’s occupation and the occupants’ demands. Still, there is no escaping the political struggle. A billboard along the main boulevard that advocated for closer ties with Russia was defaced overnight, while in another district a series of sidewalk advertisement kiosks bear the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

On Sunday, as Russian Orthodox churchgoers left services at the main cathedral, carrying pussy willows to mark Palm Sunday, many said they were fearful that the impasse was spiraling toward violence.

“We’re worried of course,” says Anna Ivanova, a retiree, as she sold pussy willows on a sidewalk near the cathedral. “I want to stay a part of Ukraine. I don’t want to be part of Russia, but we need to find a way to live peacefully with Russia.

“If the guys in Kiev stopped thinking only about their Mercedes and their sacks of money, and came and talked to us, and listened to us, and heard what we have to say, we wouldn’t have all these (problems)."

Outside the administration building, by midday the crowd had swollen to a few thousand, as cold drizzle fell. A group of mainly elderly woman wearing plastic ponchos bearing the name of President Yanukovych huddled around a man listening to live reports from the clashes in Slavyansk.

Standing in front of the main entrance, now a kaleidoscope of graffiti and signs in English and Russia, speakers asked for volunteers to drive to Slavyansk, about 55 miles away, to help fight security forces. One man gave the crowd a short lecture on the history of the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund, calling them part of a “pyramid scheme.” 

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