Pro-Russian protesters sit on automobile tyres outside a
regional government building in Donetsk. REUTERS/Stringer
Pro-Moscow protesters in eastern Ukraine seized arms in
one city and declared a separatist republic in another, in
moves Kiev has described as part of a Russian-orchestrated plan
to justify an invasion to dismember the country.
Kiev said the overnight seizure of public buildings in three
cities in eastern Ukraine's mainly Russian-speaking
industrial heartland were a replay of events in Crimea, the
Black Sea peninsula Moscow seized and annexed last month.
"An anti-Ukrainian plan is being put into operation ... under
which foreign troops will cross the border and seize the
territory of the country," Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk
said in public remarks to his cabinet. "We will not allow
Pro-Russian protesters seized official buildings in the
eastern cities of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk on Sunday
night (local time), demanding that referendums be held on
whether to join Russia like the one that preceded Moscow's
takeover of Crimea.
Acting President Oleksander Turchinov, in a televised address
to the nation, said Moscow was attempting to repeat "the
Crimea scenario". He added that "anti-terrorist measures"
would be deployed against those who had taken up arms.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov in a phone call that Washington was
watching events in eastern Ukraine with great concern and any
further moves by Moscow to destabilize Ukraine would "incur
further costs for Russia."
Kerry "called on Russia to publicly disavowed the activities
of separatists, saboteurs and provocateurs" in Ukraine, the
State Department said. The two discussed convening direct
talks in the next 10 days between Ukraine, Russia, the United
States and the European Union to defuse tensions.
WHITE HOUSE WARNING
The White House warned Russian President Vladimir Putin
against moving "overtly or covertly" into eastern Ukraine and
said there was strong evidence that pro-Russian demonstrators
in the region were being paid.
Lavrov told Kerry that constitutional reform was required to
resolve the crisis. Russia says this would give Ukraine's
regions more powers, as it believes the rights of ethnic
Russians in Ukraine are being violated.
In an article on the website of Britain's Guardian newspaper,
Lavrov denied Russia was destabilising Ukraine and accused
the West of the "groundless whipping-up of tension".
Separately, he warned authorities in Kiev against any use of
force against pro-Russian demonstrators.
Police said they cleared the protesters from the building in
Kharkiv, but in Luhansk the demonstrators had seized weapons.
In Donetsk, home base of deposed Moscow-backed President
Viktor Yanukovich, about 120 pro-Russia activists calling
themselves the "Republican People's Soviet of Donetsk" seized
the chamber of the regional assembly.
An unidentified bearded man read out "the act of the
proclamation of an independent state, Donetsk People's
Republic" in front of a white, blue and red Russian flag.
"In the event of aggressive action from the illegitimate Kiev
authorities, we will appeal to the Russian Federation to
bring in a peacekeeping contingent," ran the proclamation.
The activists later read out the text by loud hailer to a
cheering crowd of about 1,000 outside the building.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Monday the
main regional administration building in Kharkiv had been
cleared of "separatists". But police in Luhansk said
protesters occupying the state security building there had
seized weapons. Highway police closed off roads into the
"Unidentified people who are in the building have broken into
the building's arsenal and have seized weapons," police said
in a statement. Nine people had been hurt in the disturbances
Putin announced on March 1, a week after Yanukovich was
overthrown, that Moscow had the right to take military action
in Ukraine to protect Russian speakers, creating the biggest
confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
The United States and EU imposed mild financial sanctions on
some Russian officials over the seizure of Crimea and have
threatened much tougher measures if Russian troops, now
massed on the frontier, enter other parts of Ukraine.
Western European governments have hesitated to alienate
Russia further, fearing for supplies of Russian natural gas,
much of which reaches EU buyers via pipelines across Ukraine.
Ukraine's own dependence on Russian gas gives Moscow strong
leverage, especially over Ukraine's eastern industrial areas.
Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom said it had received no
payments from Ukraine for money owed for gas. It has given
Kiev until midnight (2000 GMT) to reduce a $2.2 billion gas
debt, although it has not said what it will do if Kiev misses
the deadline. In previous years, gas disputes between Moscow
and Kiev have hurt supplies to Europe.
In Vienna, Russia did not attend a meeting on Ukraine of the
Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The U.S.
envoy to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, said Moscow needed to explain
why tens of thousands of its troops were massed on the
NATO has halted cooperation with Russia. The Western military
alliance announced on Monday it would now restrict access to
its headquarters by Russian diplomats apart from Moscow's
ambassador, his deputy and two support staff.
Mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, densely populated
and producing much of the country's industrial output, has
seen a sharp rise in tension since Yanukovich fled the
country, and Kiev has long said it believes Moscow is behind
Pro-Russian protesters briefly held public buildings in the
east early last month and three people were killed in clashes
in mid-March. But trouble had subsided until Sunday.
Unlike in Crimea, where ethnic Russians form a majority, most
people in the east and south are ethnically Ukrainian,
although they speak Russian as a first language. Eastern
oligarchs who once backed Yanukovich have thrown their weight
behind the government in Kiev, and the unrest there is a test
of their ability to assert control.
Yanukovich, in exile in Russia, has called for referendums
across Ukrainian regions on their status within the country.
Yatseniuk said that though much of the unrest had died down
in eastern Ukraine in the past month there remained about
1,500 "radicals" in each region who spoke with "clear Russian
accents" and whose activity was being coordinated abroad. But
he said Ukrainian authorities had drawn up a plan to handle
Avakov accused Putin on Sunday of orchestrating the
"separatist disorder" and promised that disturbances would be
brought under control without violence.
Russia has been pushing internationally a plan proposing the
"federalisation" of Ukraine in which regions of the country
of 46 million would have broad powers of autonomy.
Ukraine, drawing up its own plan for "de-centralisation" in
which municipalities would retain a portion of state taxes,
says the Russian proposal is aimed at carving it up.
Ukraine's defence ministry said a Russian marine had shot and
killed a Ukrainian naval officer in Crimea on Sunday night.