Ukraine on ‘full combat alert’ against Russian invasion as gunmen tighten grip on east
Masked gunmen in military fatigues take control of government building in eastern Horlivka
Ukraine’s military is “on full combat alert” against a possible invasion by Russian troops massed on the border, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said in a ministerial meeting in Kiev on Wednesday.
“Our armed forces are on full combat alert,” he said. “The threat of Russia starting a war against mainland Ukraine is real.”
Masked gunmen in military fatigues took control of a government building in another Ukrainian town on Wednesday, as pro-Russian separatists tightened their grip on a swathe of the country’s industrial east largely unopposed by police.
Local media reports said the gunmen turned up at first light, and were later seen by a Reuters photographer to be controlling entry to the building in the town of almost 300,000 people. They refused to be photographed.
The heavily armed men wore the same military uniforms without insignia as other so-called “green men” who have joined pro-Russian protesters with clubs and chains in seizing control of a string of towns across Ukraine’s Donbass coal and steel belt abutting the border with Russia.
A police official in nearby Donetsk, the provincial capital where separatists have declared a “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, said separatists were also in control of the Horlivka police division, having seized the regional police HQ earlier in April.
Wednesday’s takeover followed the fall of government buildings on Tuesday further east in Luhansk, capital of Ukraine’s easternmost province, driving home just how far control over the densely populated region has slipped from the pro-Western central government in Kiev.
“They’ve taken them. The government administration and police,” the police official said of Horlivka.
Many hope to follow Crimea’s break from Ukraine in late March and subsequent annexation by Russia, following the overthrow of Ukraine’s then Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich in late February in a tug-of-war between the West and Russia over the strategic direction of the former Soviet republic.
The Donbass region is home to giant steel smelters and heavy plants that produce around a third of Ukraine’s industrial output.
An armed uprising began there in early April, with Kiev almost powerless to respond for fear of provoking an invasion by tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the border.
“Our main task is to prevent the terrorist threat from spreading to other regions of Ukraine,” he told a meeting of regional governors in Kiev.
“The Russian leadership is doing everything to prevent the election. But the election will take place on May 25,” he said.
Authorities in Kiev said security forces had “liquidated” three separatist checkpoints near the eastern town of Slaviansk, a separatist stronghold, and the gunmen manning them had disappeared. The information could not be independently confirmed.