Pro-Russian activists seize arms in Ukraine amid renewed invasion fears

Demonstrators in the key city of Donetsk call for Russia to send troops as Kiev warns Moscow against another Crimea-style invasion

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 5:10pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 April, 2014, 1:21am

Pro-Moscow protesters in eastern Ukraine seized arms in one city and declared a separatist republic in another, in moves Kiev described yesterday as part of a Russian-orchestrated plan to justify an invasion to dismember the country.

Kiev said the overnight seizure of public buildings in three cities in eastern Ukraine's mainly Russian-speaking industrial heartland were a replay of events in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Moscow seized and annexed last month.

"An anti-Ukrainian plan is being put into operation ... under which foreign troops will cross the border and seize the territory of the country," Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said in public remarks to his cabinet. "We will not allow this."

The demonstrators seized official buildings in the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk on Sunday night, demanding that referendums be held on whether to join Russia - similar to the one that preceded Moscow's takeover of Crimea.

Acting President Oleksander Turchynov, in a televised address to the nation, said Moscow was attempting to repeat "the Crimea scenario". He added that those who took up arms would face "anti-terrorist measures".

Police said they cleared the protesters from the building in Kharkiv, but in Luhansk demonstrators had seized weapons.

In Donetsk, home base of deposed president Viktor Yanukovych, who has Moscow's support, about 120 pro-Russia activists calling themselves the "Republican People's Soviet of Donetsk" seized the chamber of the regional assembly.

An unidentified bearded man read out "the act of the proclamation of an independent state, Donetsk People's Republic" in front of a white, blue and red Russian flag.

"In the event of aggressive action from the illegitimate Kiev authorities, we will appeal to the Russian Federation to bring in a peacekeeping contingent," the proclamation declared.

The activists later read out the text over a loudspeaker to a cheering crowd of about 1,000 people outside the building.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on March 1, a week after Yanukovych was overthrown, that Moscow had the right to take military action in Ukraine to protect Russian speakers, creating the biggest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the cold war.

The United States and European Union imposed mild financial sanctions on a number of Russian officials over the seizure of Crimea but have threatened much tougher measures if Russian troops, now massed on the frontier, enter other parts of Ukraine.

Germany said it was worried by the actions of pro-Russian demonstrators in Donetsk and Kharkiv. German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Berlin was watching events closely.

The United States said it was concerned about the "several escalatory" moves. "We see them as the result of increasing Russian pressure on Ukraine," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "We call on President Putin and his government to cease efforts to destabilise Ukraine."

Unlike in Crimea, where ethnic Russians form a majority, most people in the east and south are ethnically Ukrainian but speak Russian as a first language. Influential business owners in eastern regions who once supported Yanukovych have mostly thrown their weight behind the government in Kiev, and the unrest there is a test of their ability to assert their control.

Yanukovych, in exile in Russia, has called for referendums across Ukrainian regions on their status within the country.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse