MOSCOW – Ukraine’s effort to retake government facilities from pro-Russian separatists faltered on Wednesday as gunmen seized a column of six armored vehicles from Ukrainian soldiers and narrowly failed to grab three more.
Ukrainian media reported that 30 armed men captured another building, municipal headquarters, in Donetsk, the main city of eastern Ukraine. Unconfirmed Russian news reports said about 300 Ukrainian soldiers deployed in the area had laid down their arms.
A defense expert said that the government bid to push back the separatists was “already a disaster, bordering on a complete fiasco.”
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry confirmed that the armored vehicles has been lost to the armed separatists in the town of Kramatorsk.
It said the six vehicles were on an operation in the town when they were blocked by local residents, and that gunmen were in the crowd. It said it was trying to clarify what had happened to the crews of the vehicles.
The convoy, already flying the Russian flag, rolled into the nearby town of Slovyansk to a jubilant reception from crowds of local residents, a witness said.
“A majority of people in Slovyansk are happy that our region may soon join Russia,” Anna Adam, a 37-year-old instructor at an orphanage for the mentally handicapped, said in a telephone interview. “They want Putin to come and help them, give them bigger salaries and pensions.”
She said it was no secret to local people that the armed men who seized the town’s police station last week were Russian commandos. “Local residents take good care of them, bring them tea and sandwiches and hang around their positions during the day,” she said.
Hromadske television said another convoy of three Ukraine armored personnel carriers narrowly escaped being captured in Kramatorsk.
The report by the private television company said a Ukrainian soldier pulled the pin of a grenade to force a crowd blocking it to disperse. A bus with 30 armed men inside stopped pursuing the convoy when soldiers opened fire, it said.
Interfax, a Russian news agency, reported that earlier in the day about 300 Ukrainian soldiers deployed near Slovyansk laid down their weapons and left the area. The Ukrainian military did not confirm that report.
But the military analyst said there already was ample evidence that the operation was going badly.
Dmitry Tymchuk, head of Kiev-based Center for Military and Political Research, said authorities had enough security and riot police in the area, even if working under strict orders to avoid civilian casualties.
“No one seems to want to take responsibility in a situation when, more often than not, armed terrorists are surrounded by crowds of civilian sympathizers,” he said.
“Another week or two of such indecision and Russia won't even need to invade in force, because our eastern regions will begin to fold one by one and hold illegitimate independence referendums immediately recognized by the Kremlin,” Tymchuk said.
The UNIAN news agency said about 30 armed men captured the city council in Donetsk. Separatists had previously taken control of the regional administrative offices.
First Vice Premier Vitaly Yarema acknowledged that some Donetsk police had joined the separatists. “The situation in Donetsk is very complicated,” Yarema was quoted by UNIAN as saying. “There are police officers who defend the position of Ukrainian independence and don't cooperate with separatists, but there are policemen which have put on St. George's ribbons [a Russian army symbol] and are now serving the separatists.”
Special correspondent Victoria Butenko in Kiev contributed to this report.