Pro-Europeans humiliated during protest in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kharkiv
Pro-Western protesters humiliated in eastern city of Kharkiv as tensions mount near border
Agence France-Presse in Kharkiv
Outnumbered, the small group of pro-European protesters were ordered to their knees on the streets of Ukraine's eastern city of Kharkiv for a humiliating ritual.
"Crawl to your Europe!" shouted members of a pro-Russian crowd who had grabbed the group on Sunday after a day of rival protests in the city.
Kharkiv is only 40 kilometres from the Russian border and has been torn in two by an East-West tug of war over Ukraine's future.
The mob chanted "Kharkiv is a Russian city!" and taunted their terrified prey as the group crawled on their knees down the steep cobbled street.
They were protected by riot police, who formed a corridor around them but did little to stop the spectacle.
Spat on, kicked and abused, the men were eventually bundled into a police van. The scene represented a rapid deterioration of what had been a largely peaceful meeting on the city's Freedom Square an hour earlier.
Pro-Russian movements horrified by events in Kiev, where a pro-Western government took power in February, demanded autonomy in the latest protest in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city.
Russian speakers in the east feel greater ties to Moscow, which is accused of whipping up separatist sentiment in the region by urging that Ukraine become a federal state.
The demand comes after Russian troops seized the mainly Russian-speaking Crimea in response to the removal of a Moscow-friendly regime in Kiev.
"This new government came to rule with force," said mother-of-three Emily Belkina, 31. "They came with guns in their hands. We need federalisation. It's the only thing that can save us."
As about 2,000 people gathered under a statue of Lenin, second world war songs and radio broadcasts spurred on elders nostalgic for the Soviet Union and a younger generation for whom Kiev and its Western aspirations are just too far away.
"Federalisation means at least more autonomy and more power for our region, including the right to choose how to live our life," said Alexander, 32, a factory worker.
Only a few hundred metres away - under a statue of Ukraine's national hero, the poet Taras Shevchenko - pro-Europeans gathered.
But as tensions ran high with the capture and humiliation of the group of pro-Europeans, news quickly spread that fellow Moscow sympathisers in the city of Donetsk had seized the seat of government without opposition from police.
In Lugansk, they had managed to break into a local security service building.
Within an hour, chanting "Russia, Russia", the Kharkiv protesters - buoyed by the success in other cities - took on the police blockade at the council.
But the officers had been ordered not to use force and stepped aside with barely a murmur, allowing the protesters to swarm the building, remove the Ukrainian flag flying on top and plant a Russian flag in its place.