Armed men stand at an improvised checkpoint in Slaviansk.
Pro-Russian separatists have set up checkpoints on roads
into the eastern Ukrainian city. REUTERS/Maks Levin
Armed separatists took virtual control of a city in
eastern Ukraine and Kiev prepared troops to deal with what it
called an "act of aggression by Russia".
Pro-Russian activists carrying automatic weapons seized
government buildings in Slaviansk and set up barricades on
the outskirts of the city. Official buildings in several
neighbouring towns were also attacked.
The developments have increased concerns of a possible "gas
war" that could disrupt energy supplies across the continent.
"The Ukrainian authorities consider the events of the day as
a display of external aggression from Russia," Interior
Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement.
"Units of the interior and defence ministries are
implementing an operational response plan," he added.
Russia and Ukraine have been in confrontation since protests
in Kiev forced the Moscow-backed president from office, and
the Kremlin sent troops to annex Crimea, the home of its
Black Sea Fleet and a part of Russia until 1954.
Moscow denies any plan to send in forces or split Ukraine,
but the Western-leaning authorities in Kiev believe Russia is
trying to create a pretext to interfere again. NATO says
Russian armed forces are massing on Ukraine's eastern border,
while Moscow says they are on normal manoeuvres.
At least 20 men armed with pistols and rifles took over the
police station and a security services headquarters in
Slaviansk, a city of over 100,000 people about 150 km (90
miles) from the border with Russia.
Officials said the men had seized hundreds of pistols from
arsenals in the buildings. The militants replaced the
Ukrainian flag on one of the buildings with the red, white
and blue Russian flag.
Washington backed Kiev's assessment that Moscow was
responsible. "Worrisome violence in ... Ukraine today. Russia
again seems to be behind it," State Department spokeswoman
Jen Psaki said on Twitter.
ROADBLOCKS AROUND CITY
On a road leading into Slaviansk, other members of the group,
armed with automatic rifles, set up a roadblock and checked
vehicles entering the city, a Reuters reporter said.
There was no sign of any Ukrainian law enforcement officials
in the city.
Ukraine's Western-backed government warned of tough action if
the militants did not lay down their weapons, but it was
unclear if the local law enforcement agencies were taking
orders from Kiev any more after the local police chief quit.
Kostyantyn Pozhydayev came out to speak to pro-Russian
protesters at his offices in the regional capital, Donetsk,
and told them he was stepping down "in accordance with your
demands". Some of his officers left the building.
The protesters occupied the ground floor of the Donetsk
police headquarters and a black and orange flag adopted by
pro-Russian separatists flew over the building in place of
the Ukrainian flag.
The occupations are a potential flashpoint because if
protesters are killed or hurt by Ukrainian forces, that could
prompt the Kremlin to intervene to protect the local
Russian-speaking population, a repeat of the scenario in
Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting Ukrainian president, called
an emergency meeting of the national security council for
Saturday evening to discuss the unrest in the east.
Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, said
he had spoken by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov and demanded Moscow stop what he called
"provocative actions" by its agents in eastern Ukraine.
Lavrov, in a statement issued by his ministry, said there
were no Russian agents in the region and that it would be
"unacceptable" if Ukrainian authorities were to order the
storming of the buildings.
Ukrainian commentator Sergei Leshchenko said the burst of
activity by pro-Russian groups was an attempt by the Kremlin
to give it a strong negotiating position before international
talks about Ukraine in Geneva next Thursday.
Russia is expected to argue at the talks for a revamp of
Ukraine's constitution to give a large degree of autonomy to
eastern Ukraine, something Kiev and its Western backers
"Russia will come to the talks with the position that
'Donetsk and several neighbouring regions are already ours -
now let's talk about federalisation'," said Leshchenko, a
commentator with the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper.
With the crisis in Ukraine still unresolved, the gas dispute
threatens to affect millions of people across Europe.
A large proportion of the natural gas that EU states buy from
Russia is pumped via Ukrainian territory, so if Russia makes
good on a threat to cut off Ukraine for non-payment of its
bills, customers further west will have supplies disrupted.
Russia is demanding Kiev pay a much higher price for its gas,
and settle unpaid bills. Russian state-owned gas giant
Gazprom and its Ukrainian counterpart, Naftogaz, are in
talks, but the chances of an agreement are slim.
"I would say we are coming nearer to a solution of the
situation, but one in the direction that is bad for Ukraine,"
Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuri Prodan said in an interview
with the German newspaper Boersenzeitung
"We are probably steering towards Russia turning off its gas
provision," he was quoted as saying.
That raised the spectre of a repeat of past "gas wars", when
Ukraine's gas was cut off with a knock-on effect on supplies
to EU states.
The scope for compromise narrowed after the Naftogaz chief
executive told a Ukrainian newspaper that Kiev was suspending
payments to Gazprom pending a conclusion of talks on a new
Ukraine has de facto stopped payments already because it
failed to make an instalment of over $500 million due this
month to Russian state gas giant Gazprom.
Moscow says it does not want to turn off Ukraine's gas if it
can be avoided, and that it will honour all commitments to
supply its EU customers.