SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — At the epicenter of the pro-Russia rebellion in eastern Ukraine, masked men on Friday raced around in commandeered police cars, blowing through stop lights and flying over speed bumps. Although it was a warm spring day, the streets were nearly empty.
Separatists described taking up sniper positions in an unfinished office building, only to find that two floors down their enemies had the same idea.
The Ukrainian government declared Friday that it planned to surround and blockade this town, which is completely controlled by the separatists. Officials on both sides said a Ukrainian military helicopter, which had been used to drop leaflets criticizing the separatists, had been destroyed by hostile fire, apparently shot down. The separatists also detained a 13-member delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which included five Ukrainian army officers.
Separatists said they were hunkering down and hoping that Russian President Vladimir Putin would come to their aid.
"We will stay to fight and face two options: Either we'll be wiped out by superior regular forces or be saved by the Russian army," said Yevgeny Yermakov, 25, an economist dressed in camouflage and wearing a black woolen mask.
Two weeks ago, gunmen wearing masks and uniforms without insignia seized the town's administrative building and offices of the police and Ukrainian security service. They built barricades and checkpoints in the center and around the outskirts, cementing their control. In contrast, separatists hold only individual government buildings in a number of other eastern Ukrainian cities.
The separatist force appears to be a mix of young toughs and heavily armed professional military men who seem to spend most of their time indoors. Though they were initially welcomed by many citizens, some grumbling can be heard now.
One woman, a psychologist, said people were tired of the constant stress, and when the separatist gunmen asked them to come out to the barricades recently to support them, no one came. "People may still support them, but they don't want to be part of their war," she said. "They don't want a war here, and many are beginning to understand who is really after a war."
Oleg Zontov, editor of the local online publication Slavinfo, said, "The town has turned into a complete gangland, as lots of marginal and criminal characters were handed fire arms by the separatist leadership."
Banks, schools and hospitals are closed. There were few people on the streets, and almost no children.
Yermakov and other armed men were cleaning hunting rifles and shotguns in front of the police station Friday, preparing for night duty. Meanwhile, men dressed in civilian suits were carrying out boxes. They were local police, according to one gunman, who were being allowed to retrieve of their files and documents from the station they no longer controlled.
On the outskirts of town, a man of professional military bearing, armed with an assault rifle and grenade launcher, was checking cars and trucks heading into Slovyansk. He identified himself by a code name, "Popeye," and said he was a former Soviet and Ukrainian army sergeant who came recently from Crimea.
In mid-March, Russia formally annexed the Crimean peninsula, where the majority of the population is ethnic Russian, after a referendum.
Here, Popeye acknowledged, things were a little different. "In Crimea it was much easier, everyone wanted to go to Russia," he said. In eastern Ukraine, "we will help them hold a referendum, but we don't know how they will vote."
And he despaired about some of the population. One motorist who came through the checkpoint showed him a handful of the government leaflets he had picked up in a field. They depicted a black-and-white image of a masked man aiming a handgun and warned of "Russian saboteurs and terrorists and local criminals under their leadership." The motorist claimed the leaflets were poisoned because his face and hands had started to itch.
"It is hard to hold a real Crimea-like referendum with crazy people like him," Popeye said as the car rolled away.
He also told of coming across the tracks of Ukrainian snipers still apparently operating in Slovyansk.
Popeye said he and a comrade took up a position on the top floor of an unfinished nine-story office building. A stray cat was living in the building, and the men fed it. One night they called it, but it wouldn't come.
Popeye said that when he went to look for it, he found a sniper nest for two men who fled when they heard him coming. The installation included light mattresses, traces of food — and the cat. Ukrainian soldiers apparently were using a different entrance, fed the same cat, and had the main door to the local office of the Security Service in their sights, he said.
The separatist force, Popeye said, was waiting every day for Russian troops to come.
In Kiev, the capital, Ukrainian officials said they planned to surround Slovyansk.
"Ukrainian special units have begun a second stage of the operation, which aims at completely blocking the town of Slovyansk to prevent a possibility for reinforcements and to localize the problem," Sergei Pashinsky, chief of the presidential administration, said at a briefing. "What we have in Slovyansk has nothing to do with politics. It is classical terrorism."
The helicopter that crashed, an Mi-8, went down shortly after takeoff from an airport between Slovyansk and neighboring Kramatorsk, said airport chief Dmitry Podushkin, "supposedly from a subversive act by Russian special services." An airplane on the ground was damaged by the helicopter when it crashed. The helicopter pilot was seriously injured, Podushkin said.
Separatists said they had shot down the helicopter.
"They kept flying across our airspace, and we decided to teach then a lesson — so to say, cut their wings," Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk and a separatist leader, said with a laugh. He said it was the helicopter that had dropped the leaflets.
Ponomaryov complained that his men didn't have enough firearms, but brushed off the danger of being surrounded.
"We have more than 2,500 men in our little army, and this is our turf we know inside out," he said. "We will find ways to penetrate their blockade."
Special correspondent Victoria Butenko in Kiev contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times