Kiev moves against pro-Russian protesters in Eastern Ukraine
After pro-Russians protesters in Donetsk yesterday seized in arms and declared the region independent from Kiev, Ukrainian police detained 70 demonstrators occupying a regional administration building in eastern Ukraine overnight, and the Parliament stiffened penalties for separatism, as a response to what Kiev says is a Russian-led plan to dismember the country.
Ukraine says the seizure of public buildings in its mainly Russian-speaking industrial heartland on Sunday night is a replay of events in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Moscow annexed last month.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said protesters in the town of Kharkiv had been cleared in a lightning, 18 minute "anti-terrorist" operation, pinning responsibility for the building's occupation on Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's ousted Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich. "All this (in Kharkiv) was inspired and financed by the Putin-Yanukovich group," said Avakov.
An aide to Avakov said police went in when the Kharkiv protesters failed to give themselves up and surrender their arms. No shots were fired by the police, although some had been from the other side and a grenade was thrown, he said. One police officer was badly wounded and some others less seriously hurt.
The pro-Russian protesters have been demanding that referendums be held on whether to join Russia like the vote, dismissed by the Kiev and West as illegal, that endorsed Crimea's return to rule by Moscow.
The Ukrainian Parliament increased penalties for crimes against the State up to 10 years. “Separatists that rise in arms and seize official buildings will be treated as the Constitution and the laws says, as terrorists and criminals”, said Oleksandr Turchinov, the ukrainian interim president.
The standoff however continued in the mining centre of Donetsk - Yanukovich's home base - where a group of pro-Russian deputies inside the main regional authority building on Monday declared a separatist republic. Police say that in a third protest in the city of Luhansk pro-Russia activists inside the main state security building have seized weapons.
Ukraine has been in turmoil since late last year when Yanukovich rejected closer relations with the European Union and tilted the former Soviet republic back towards Moscow. That provoked mass protests in which more than 100 people were killed by police and which drove Yanukovich from office in February, leading to Kiev's loss of control in Crimea.