MOSCOW -- Pro-Russia demonstrators who seized the regional administration building in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk announced Monday that they were declaring an independent republic and would hold a referendum about joining the region with Moscow.
The country’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, blamed Russia for the unrest and said an anti-terrorism operation would be launched against any demonstrators who took up arms to capture government buildings.
“Yesterday, the second wave of Russia's special operation was launched with the aim of destabilizing the situation in the country, overthrowing Ukraine's government, disrupting the election and tearing up the country,” Turchynov said in a televised speech Monday. “This is all happening at a time when Russian forces are staying at our borders.”
Crowds took over at least three government buildings Sunday in industrial cities of eastern Ukraine, which has been plagued by demonstrations in favor of stronger ties to Moscow.
In Donetsk, Ukraine's coal-mining capital, several hundred protesters barricaded themselves in the administration building Monday with car tires and barbed wire and raised a Russian flag. They demanded that a referendum be held about the possible secession of the region, which borders Russia, the UNIAN news agency reported. They also appealed to Moscow to deploy what they referred to as peacekeepers to the region.
[Updated 2:38 p.m. PST, April 7: During the day, pro-Russia militants invaded the local parliament and Ukrainian Security Service buildings in Donetsk. By late Monday, however, security forces had cleared the protesters from their offices, Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Sergei Pashinsky was quoted by UNIAN as saying. The sweep reportedly involved no injuries.]
There were similar scenes in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, where protesters flew the Russian flag on top of the regional administration building.
[Updated 2:38 p.m. PST, April 7: A crowd of several hundred declared a "people's republic" of Kharkiv. Riot police stormed the city's government offices, pushing out the demonstrators, some of who started throwing Molotov cocktails into the building and set it on fire.]
In Lugansk, demonstrators were holding the regional Security Service building and a weapons depot. Nine people, including law enforcement officers, were injured in that attack, UNIAN reported.
Ukrainian presidential candidate Oleg Lyashko, who was in Lugansk, said the arms cache seized by protesters included about 300 submachine guns, 100 handguns and 20 sniper rifles. Ten to 15 armed men were positioned around the building, Lyashko wrote on his Facebook page.
“The criminals are predominantly military and Afghan war veterans, and there are about 150 of them in the [Security Service] building,” Lyashko wrote. “Some of the terrorists are Russian sabotage agents, given away by their accent.”
The Ukrainian government sent delegations headed by three ministers to the affected cities Monday to hold talks with the protesters.
Acting Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said progress was being made in resolving the standoff in Kharkiv.
“Overnight we elaborated a clear-cut plan of action to overcome the situation,” Yatsenyuk said in televised remarks Monday. “I am in constant contact with the law enforcement section.”
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, another presidential candidate, reportedly flew to Donetsk to try to help defuse the situation.
Police have offered little or no resistance to the protesters.
“The police are demoralized since they have not been given an order to open fire on the attackers,” Vadim Karasyov, director of the Kiev-based Institute of Global Strategies, told The Times. “They know only too well that a single shot fired and a single casualty among the attackers may prompt the Kremlin to declare that ‘fascist extremists’ are killing Russian nationals in eastern Ukraine and Russian troops absolutely must invade Ukraine to prevent the bloodshed.”
Karasyov said Moscow didn't recognize Ukraine’s interim government and was trying to disrupt the presidential election scheduled for May 25.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his position during a meeting with the Federal Security Service leadership in Moscow on Monday.
What happened in Ukraine was “an anti-constitutional coup,” mainly carried out by “nationalist, neo-Nazi structures and militants” and financed from abroad, he said.
Thousands of Russian troops are deployed all along Ukraine’s border, at a distance of 20 miles from the frontier, Yatsenyuk said.
Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, told the Russian radio station Echo of Moscow that his country would fight back in the event of a Russian invasion. Russia “has no grounds to deploy troops in the eastern regions of Ukraine,” he said.
Special correspondent Victoria Butenko in Kiev contributed to this report.