Kiev 'helpless' to keep eastern Ukraine in fold, as more buildings occupied

Ukraine's acting president asked for help from regional governors to stop upheaval in the east from spreading, as pro-Russia militants seized buildings in Horlivka, a city near Donetsk.

Manu Brabo/AP
A pro Russian masked man smokes behind a barricade placed around the local government building in Horlivka, a city northeast of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine last week.

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Ukraine’s president warned Wednesday that its police and security forces are “helpless” to subdue unrest in the country’s east, even as pro-Russia militants seized government buildings in another city in the restive region.

“I will be frank: Today, security forces are unable to quickly take the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under control,” said acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, who asked for help from regional governors to meet Kiev’s goal of stopping the upheaval from spreading to other regions, according to the Associated Press. 

The comments deepen concern that turmoil in eastern Ukraine will derail elections scheduled for May 25. The West views elections as crucial to establishing a strong, democratically elected government in Kiev to replace the interim government that took power after former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in February. 

Pro-Russian gunmen – who the West claims are backed by Russia though Moscow denies it – are accused of trying to derail elections so that Kiev is kept weak and a referendum on a “federalization” plan, which would devolve power from Kiev to the regions, is held, reports The Christian Science Monitor’s correspondent in Kiev.

Mr. Turchynov spoke shortly after pro-Russian forces expanded their control over in eastern Ukraine. In Horlivka, a city just north of Donetsk, “Insurgents wielding automatic weapons took control and hoisted a separatist flag on top of the city council” and took control of a police station, reports the AP.

“Local media reports said the gunmen turned up at first light,” reports Reuters and “were later seen by a Reuters photographer to be controlling entry to the building in the town of almost 300,000 people. They refused to be photographed.”

The heavily armed men wore the same military uniforms without insignia as other so-called "green men" who have joined pro-Russian protesters with clubs and chains in seizing control of a string of towns across Ukraine's Donbass coal and steel belt abutting the border with Russia. 

The movements in Horlivka follow Tuesday’s takeover of the regional government headquarters in Luhansk, a city of over 400,000, and increasing violence across the region. The mayor of Kharkiv, a relative holdout in eastern Ukraine, was airlifted to Israel after being shot Monday; a Donetsk politician and student were found dead last week; and several were injured Monday when pro-Russian protesters attacked a unionist demonstration with baseball bats.

Residents of eastern Ukraine express conflicting views on the turmoil in their region, The Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir reports:

Among residents in the restive areas, opinions over the political turmoil are complex. Ukrainian media have widely cited a recent poll that found big majorities in the largely Russian-speaking east opposed the seizure of government buildings. The mid-April survey by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology also found that only a minority supported Crimea-style reunification with Russia. Almost two-thirds of respondents said that Ukraine should remain a united country. 

But the same poll also found that over half of respondents believed acting President Aleksandr Turchynov is "illegally occupying his post," while just under half thought the same about acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Both took power after the February overthrow of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.

Those viewpoints in eastern Ukraine “may help to explain Kiev's relative restraint after threatening to use military force to 'cleanse' the east of pro-Russian rebels,” Mr. Weir writes. “Instead it has opted for a more cautious approach: The Ukrainian Army is now trying to isolate pro-Russian strongholds, such as the town of Slovyansk in the Donetsk region. At the same time, it's working to cut off communications between rebel centers.”

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