December 21, 2014
Ukraine conflict escalates, at least 42 killed in riot
At least 42 people were killed in street battles between supporters and opponents of Russia in southern Ukraine that ended with dozens of pro-Russian protesters incinerated in a burning building, bringing the country closer to war.
Pro-Russian rebels in the east freed seven European military observers today after holding them hostage for eight days, while Kiev pressed on with its biggest military operation so far to reclaim rebel-held territory in the area.
The riot in the Black Sea port of Odessa, ending in a deadly blaze in a besieged trade union building, was by far the worst incident in Ukraine since a February uprising that ended with a pro-Russian president fleeing the country.
It also spread the violence from the eastern separatist heartland to an area far from the Russian frontier, raising the prospect of unrest sweeping more broadly across a country of around 45 million people the size of France.
The Kremlin, which has massed tens of thousands of soldiers on the Ukraine's eastern border and proclaims the right to invade to protect Russian speakers, said the government in Kiev and its Western backers were responsible for the deaths.
Kiev said the violence was provoked by foreign demonstrators sent in from Transdniestria, a nearby breakaway pro-Russian region of Moldova where Moscow has a military garrison. It said most of the dead who had been identified so far were from there.
People placed flowers near the burnt-out doors of the trade union building, lighting candles and putting up the yellow, white and red flag of the city. The burnt remains of a tented camp of pro-Russian demonstrators nearby had been swept away. People spoke of their horror at what happened.
About 2,000 pro-Russian protesters gathered outside the burnt-out building, chanting: "Odessa is a Russian city".
At the nearby hospital, residents queued up to offer blood and others tried to find out what medicine was needed so they could go out to buy it.
The Odessa bloodshed came on the same day that Kiev launched its biggest push yet to reassert its control over separatist areas in the east, hundreds of kilometers away, where armed pro-Russian rebels have proclaimed a "People's Republic of Donetsk".
The rebels there aim to hold a referendum on May 11 on secession from Ukraine, similar to one staged in March in Ukraine's Crimea region, which was seized and annexed by Russia in a move that overturned the post-Cold War diplomatic order.
Meanwhile, the government said it was pressing on with the offensive in the area for a second day, and had recaptured a television tower and a security services building from rebels in Kramatorsk, a town near the rebel stronghold of Slaviansk.
Rebels in Slaviansk, their most heavily fortified redoubt, shot down two Ukrainian helicopters yesterday, killing two crew, and stalled an advance by Ukrainian troops in armored vehicles. Separatists said three fighters and two civilians were killed in Friday's Ukrainian advance on the town.
Vasyl Krutov, head of a government "anti-terrorist centre" behind the operation in the east, told a news conference there was gunfire and fighting around Kramatorsk: "What we are facing in the Donetsk region and in the eastern regions is not just some kind of short-lived uprising, it is in fact a war."
The military operation in the east was overshadowed by the unprecedented violence in Odessa, a vibrant multi-ethnic port city that has seen some support for separatists but nothing like the riots that erupted on Friday.
Police said four people were killed, at least three shot dead, and dozens wounded in running battles between people backing Kiev and pro-Russian activists.
The clashes ended with separatists holed up in the large Soviet-era granite-walled trade union building. Video footage showed petrol bombs exploding against its walls.
At least 37 people died in the blaze. Today police raised the overall death toll in the city to 42. It was easily the biggest death toll since about 100 people were killed in Kiev protests that toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich in February.