Kalashnikov-wielding gunmen yesterday seized a police station and a security building in Ukraine's restive eastern industrial heartland amid spreading protests to press for the Russia-leaning region to join Kremlin rule.
The co-ordinated attacks and a subsequent raid by a few hundred pro-Russia protesters on the police headquarters of the local capital, Donetsk, underscored the volatility of the crisis ahead of peace talks between EU and US diplomats and their Moscow and Kiev counterparts in Geneva on Thursday.
Ukraine's interim leaders have been facing unceasing pressure from Russia since their February ousting of an unpopular Kremlin-backed president and decision to seek closer ties with the West.
Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine's eastern border after annexing its Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and nearly doubled the rates it charges Kiev for gas. The seizures more immediately highlight how little sway Kiev's untested leaders have over pro-Russia citizens who have since April 6 controlled the Donetsk government seat and a state security building in the nearby eastern city of Lugansk.
On Friday, the US unveiled sanctions against six of Crimea's breakaway leaders, including the official who signed the deal with Moscow to split the peninsula from Ukraine. The sanctions targeted the former vice speaker of Ukraine's parliament, Sergei Tsekov, who now serves as Crimea's representative in the Russian parliament. The US Treasury also blacklisted Chernomorneftegaz, a gas company whose assets were seized by the Crimean parliament and are now managed by Moscow. The police station raid and a subsequent attack of the regional security service centre happened in Slavyansk, a riverside town of 100,000 about 60 kilometres north of regional capital Donetsk.
Ukraine's interior ministry said the first assault was led by 20 "armed men in camouflage fatigues" whose main purpose was to seize 20 machine guns and 400 Makarov guns stored in the police headquarters "and to distribute them to protesters".
"Our response will be very severe," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.
The police station was surrounded by armed men in masks and camouflage who had set up a barricade of old tyres and dumpsters in front of the police headquarters.
The gunmen aggressively shoved aside Western reporters and only allowed Russian-speaking media anywhere near the building.
"The entire city … will defend the guys who seized this building," Slavyansk Mayor Neli Shlepa told Russia's Life News television outside the police headquarters.
Ukraine's interior minister said that a separate group of assailants had also unsuccessfully tried to seize the Donetsk prosecutor's office.
A few dozen anti-riot police who arrived at the scene were instead seen sporting orange and black ribbons symbolising support for Russian rule, a vivid sign of Kiev's slipping hold on Ukraine's eastern rust belt.
The Donetsk administration centre is already being held by gunmen who have proclaimed the creation of their own "people's republic" and have called for Russian troops to be sent into eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine's embattled premier promised during an unannounced visit to Donetsk on Friday to grant more powers to the country's regions.
But the Donetsk and Lugansk gunmen also want to stage independence referendums coinciding with snap presidential polls Ukraine will stage on May 25.