Another city in eastern Ukraine fell into the hands of separatists Monday as armed men in balaclava masks and camouflage uniforms seized the administration building and police station in Kostiantynivka.
Scores of cheering residents watched the gunmen climb onto the roof of the administration building, haul down a Ukrainian flag and hoist up a black, blue and red banner of the separatists’ self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic. Kostiantynivka is about 40 miles north of the city of Donetsk.
The neighboring town of Slovyansk, captured by gunmen April 12, has become the epicenter of the insurrection among pro-Russia gunmen in the east. A Russian-speaking man who said his name was Igor Strelkov claimed this week that he was leading the military wing of the separatist movement, which aims to break the Donetsk region away from Ukraine. The Ukrainian Security Service on Monday said he was a Russian military intelligence officer named Igor Girkin operating on orders from Moscow.
The gunmen in Slovyansk were holding about 40 hostages. Among them were six military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, their interpreter and four Ukrainian army officers who were accompanying them when they were taken captive near Slovyansk last week, Marina Ostapenko, a spokesperson for the Security Service, said at a news briefing in Kiev on Monday. Three Ukrainian security officers abducted Saturday are also being held, she said.
In Kostiantynivka, loudspeakers on the porch of the administration building played Russian patriotic and nationalistic songs as about two dozen volunteers began erecting a barricade of sandbags and old auto tires out front.
“Russians are coming!” the song played at a deafening volume. “Russians are coming to ban lechery and violence! Russians are spitting at the authorities in America and Europe!”
Young women joined in the singing as a middle-aged woman in a snow-white wig came out of the administration building carrying orange and black St. George ribbons, a symbol of Russian military glory, and began to distribute them to residents.
When a couple asked to have a picture of their 12-year son, Ivan, taken with the masked separatists, one of the gunmen put a grenade launcher over the boy's shoulder.
“We so welcome these soldiers who came and saved us from the genocide at the hands of these fascists in Kiev,” said Ivan's mother, Yelena Khodyreva, a 42-year-old businesswoman. “Can you imagine that my son had to learn Russian at our local school by the schoolbook titled ‘For Ethnic Minorities!’ ”
Another gunman put a boy on his shoulders and let him hold his Kalashnikov rifle. The crowd clapped and cheered.
Not everyone was cheering.
“There is absolutely no reason for these unidentified armed men to come to our town and save us at gunpoint from some mythical fascists no one ever saw,” said Vladimir Sizov, a 36-year-old business manager. “No one was doing us any harm, no one was preventing us from speaking Russian.
“What we see here in fact is Russia grabbing our region without a shot fired,” he added, shaking his head.
Indeed, no shots were fired to prevent the gunmen from seizing another town. Police were nowhere in sight during the morning as their station was held by the gunmen, who signaled with a wave of their rifles that motorists should move on.
The security operation declared by Ukrainian authorities two weeks ago remained in effect but was apparently ineffective, as several government units set up checkpoints a few miles outside Slovyansk and stayed put through the weekend without challenging the gunmen. Some critics maintain that they were cooperating with separatists.
“The Donetsk regional police turned out to be traitors sabotaging the operation,” Taras Berezovets, head of Berta Communications, a Kiev-based think tank, said in an interview with The Times. “The senior and middle-rank army officers are also sabotaging the operation.”
Russia-backed separatists may yet face volunteer police and national guard units being formed across Ukraine, Berezovets said. “But that may turn into a real bloodbath.”
On Monday, a naked body with its abdomen slit was found in a river near Slovyansk, not far from where the body of Volodymyr Rybak, a councilman from Horlivka, was found last week bearing similar injuries, the Interior Ministry reported on its website.
Gennady Kernes, the popular mayor of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, was shot in the back Monday, authorities said. He was in critical condition after undergoing surgery at a clinic, said Dr. Valery Boiko, who performed the two-hour operation.
A pro-Russia crowd armed with bats, sticks, metal rods, chains and rocks attacked a rally for Ukraine's unity in the city of Donetsk. At least a dozen demonstrators were injured and taken to the hospital.
Special correspondent Victoria Butenko in Kiev contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times