MOSCOW – Gunmen wearing camouflage uniforms seized two administrative buildings Saturday in a town in eastern Ukraine and separatists attacked sites in two other towns, drawing the vow of a tough response from a top Ukrainian official who blamed the violence on Russian “aggression.”
The assailants, armed with automatic rifles, seized a police station and Security Service office in Slavyansk, in the eastern Donetsk region. They captured at least 20 submachine guns and 400 handguns in the station's armory and began distributing the weapons to dozens of separatists, the UNIAN news agency reported.
The group raised a Russian flag over the station, the report said.
A video posted on Youtube by a resident of Slavyansk, an industrial town about 80 miles north of Donetsk, shows a group of masked men wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms and armed with Kalashnikovs roping the iron bars of the police station's ground floor window to a minibus and pulling them away. Several gunmen are then seen climbing into the building.
Eastern Ukraine, which borders Russia, has been racked by small anti-government and secessionist protests since Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean region in March after the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich. Many Ukrainians suspect Russia is at least supporting and encouraging the protests, if not directing them.
The central government dispatched a commando unit to Slavyansk, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook account. “There will be zero tolerance toward terrorists with arms,” he said.
Avakov made similar statements after protesters seized government buildings early last week in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, demanding that they surrender the sites within 48 hours. The deadline passed without an attempt by authorities to retake the buildings.
The armed militants in Slavyansk destroyed cellphone towers in town, Avakov wrote, labeling the clashes in the east a “manifestation of foreign aggression on the part of the Russian Federation." He said an urgent session of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council was underway in Kiev.
Separatist activists also seized a police station in the Donetsk region town of Krasny Liman, media reports said, though Avakov wrote that local police and self-defense forces had repelled the attack. An armed attack on a police station in the town of Kramatorsk led to a shootout that was still ongoing, Avakov said.
In the city of Donetsk, pro-Russia demonstrators surrounded the regional police station Saturday demanding the resignation of the police chief, who was recently appointed by the interim government.
[Updated at 2:15 p.m. PDT, April 12: Regional police chief Konstantin Pozhidayev later resigned, UNIAN reported. Armed men attacked a chemical plant in the city on Saturday afternoon but were repelled by National Guard forces, UNIAN reported.]
In Kramatorsk, the attackers seized the police station and the shootout ended with no injuries, the liberal online publication Ukrainskaya Pravda reported.]
Petro Poroshenko, seen as the front-runner in Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election, called for a coordinated effort “all the way to an anti-terrorist operation” in the east. “If we don't restore law and order in an individual town, the actions of these terrorists financed from abroad and prepared by experts from a neighboring state, we will have a significantly greater volume of problems which will be very difficult to tackle,” he said in televised remarks Saturday.
One analyst accused the Russian military of coordinating the seizure of sites in eastern Ukraine in an attempt to give Moscow more leverage during coming negotiations.
“The goal of the current actions is to capture as many administrative buildings and law enforcement stations as possible before April 17, that is before the meeting in Geneva of representatives of Ukraine, European Union, the USA and Russia to resolve the crisis in our country,” Dmitry Tymchuk, head of Kiev-based Center for Military and Political Research, wrote on his Facebook page on Saturday.
Russia was to blame for aggravating the situation in southeast Ukraine, acting Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia implied in a phone conversation Saturday with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, said a statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry's official website.
“In response S. V. Lavrov said that there were no grounds for such allegations,” the statement read. “He reminded that similar claims toward Russia are voiced by Washington but we haven't been presented with concrete facts.”
[For the Record, 7:05 p.m. PDT April 12: An earlier version of this post said Russia annexed Crimea in late February. The annexation occurred in March.]
Special correspondent Victoria Butenko in Kiev, Ukraine contributed to this report.
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