MOSCOW -- Ukrainian riot police on Tuesday cleared a regional administration building and public square in the eastern city of Kharkiv of hundreds of pro-Russia protesters, detaining scores in the process, officials said.
“Seventy criminals were taken into custody during the operation,” Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, told the parliament in televised remarks Tuesday morning.
In response, Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a stern warning against the use of force on pro-Russia protesters in eastern Ukraine and alleged the direct involvement of private U.S. military experts.
“According to our information, Ukraine Interior Ministry and National Guard troops including militants of the illegal armed group the Right Sector are being brought to the southeast regions of Ukraine,” read a statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry's official website Tuesday. "A special concern is connected with the fact that about 150 U.S. experts from the private military organization Greystone dressed in the uniforms of [Ukraine] special unit Sokol are involved in the operation.”
“The organizers and participants in the operation are assuming huge responsibility for the creation of threats to rights, freedoms and lives of peaceful residents of Ukraine,” the statement said.
Acting Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who coordinated the operation to clear the protesters, offered a more detailed picture of the events in Kharkiv on his Facebook page.
Separatists stormed and captured the administration building at about 2 a.m. local time, Avakov said. About 200 separatists smashed windows and broke into the building, setting some areas of the ground floor on fire, he said.
Then, shortly after 6 a.m., a special law enforcement unit and a Ukraine National Guard unit moved in from central Ukraine and began clearing out the activists, he said.
“The brutal and lavishly paid aggression of the pro-Russia 'protesters' knew no limits,” Avakov wrote. “The attackers threw stun grenades at the National Guard soldiers, as the police units were shot at with traumatic weapons.”
The government forces did not open fire in return, according to his report, and three policemen were injured in the overnight events. There were no injuries or casualties among the separatist activists, Avakov said.
He accused local police of largely neglecting their duty to maintain law and order in the city.
“Much of what I saw looked more like a sabotage than [police] service,” he wrote. “Kharkiv police should undergo radical changes.”
Security and defense analyst Dmitry Tymchuk said Avakov's account of Kharkhiv police abandoning their duties could explain why relatively small groups of pro-Russia protesters had managed to seize several administrative buildings in at least three major industrial centers in eastern Ukraine in the previous two days.
“As much as 70% of regular police in the eastern regions of Ukraine neglected their duty and allowed pro-Russia protesters to seize buildings, make absurd declarations of independence and demand the holding of an illegitimate regional referendum about joining Russia,” Tymchuk, head of the Kiev-based Center for Military and Political Research, said in a phone interview with The Times.
"In the meantime, our army concentrated its combat-ready units on the border with Russia, and our border troops tightened the frontier protection, sending a clear message to the Kremlin that any attempt at invasion will result in a bloody military conflict between the two countries, which must have sobered up the hot heads in Moscow from repeating their Crimean scenario in eastern Ukraine,” Tymchuk said.
In Ukraine's coal-mining capital of Donetsk, special law enforcement units were preparing Tuesday to try to take back a regional administration building held by separatists. Renat Akhmetov, a Ukrainian tycoon and former ally of ousted President Viktor Yanukovich, was said to be trying to negotiate a peaceful solution with the armed separatists who have barricaded themselves in the building.
“To separate [from Ukraine] is not a goal but a means, whereas the goal is to have a better life,” Akhmetov told a group of pro-Russia protesters in front of the building, which was barricaded by a perimeter of stacks of auto tires and barbed wire. The audio of the discussion was broadcast live on Hromadske TV, an independent private television network.
“If there is a storm, I will be with you, suffering together with you, but I want to address the government and ask them ... to put off the storm.”
“To fight is not an option,” he said. “Who will be better off if blood is shed.”
Ukraine dispatched interim Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema to Donetsk in an attempt to resolve the situation. Yarema said he postponed an operation to clear out the separatists in order to give Akhmetov's negotiations time to play out.
“They promised that they will be handing over weapons ... and will be leaving the building,” Yarema told Hromadske TV. “In response I gave them my word that we will not resort to a storm and not use force, and I hope our agreement suits both the protesters and the police and there will be no bloodshed.”
Several people were reported injured in clashes in the eastern industrial port city of Mykolaiv as pro-Russia protesters tried to storm the regional administration building, an attempt repelled by the police, the UNIAN news agency reported.
Separatists continued to hold a national Security Service building in the industrial center of Lugansk, where pro-Russia protesters had captured several hundred weapons, according to media reports.
[Updated, 11:01 a.m. PDT April 8: The armed separatists were holding about 60 Lugansk residents as hostages inside the building, protected with bombs set up on the site, the Ukraine Security Service said Tuesday in a statement on its website.
"They are not permitting them to leave and go home," the statement said.]
In reaction to the turmoil in eastern Ukraine, the nation's parliament voted Tuesday to toughen penalties for crimes linked to separatism, including raising the maximum penalty to life in prison.
Special correspondent Victoria Butenko contributed to this report from Kiev.