Clashes and Putin visit raise tensions before Ukraine poll
Fighting in Mariupol leaves up to 20 pro-Moscow activists dead on eve of separatist vote
Veterans attend a ceremony to commemorate victims of the second World War in Donetsk on Ukraine’s Victory Day holiday yesterday. Photograph: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Ukraine has slipped deeper into crisis ahead of tomorrow’s separatist referendum in eastern regions, with deadly clashes in the city of Mariupol and a first visit from Russian leader Vladimir Putin to annexed Crimea.
In parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions where they occupy official buildings, pro-Moscow rebels are preparing for a plebiscite on splitting from Ukraine, defying doubts over whether they can hold a credible vote and rejection of its legitimacy by Kiev and the West.
Fear and tension stoked by sporadic clashes between security forces and militants across the two provinces soared yesterday, when fierce fighting erupted in the city of Mariupol and armoured vehicles roared through the streets.
Footage from the port on the Sea of Azov showed soldiers exchanging fire with rebel gunmen, and armoured vehicles flying the Ukrainian flag being surrounded by furious locals who, like many easterners, reject the authority of Kiev’s new pro-EU government.
“A group of about 60 terrorists with automatic weapons attacked the city police station,” said interior minister Arsen Avakov.
“As a result of the battle, which involved the national guard, the military and the special ‘Azov’ unit of the interior ministry . . . about 20 terrorists were destroyed and four captured,” Mr Avakov said, adding that at least one member of government forces was killed and five hurt.
The figures could not be confirmed, and the militants did not immediately release casualty numbers. Health officials said three people died and 25 were injured.
Locals accused the security forces of firing heavy weapons at the police station and shooting at unarmed people, including a Russian journalist who was reportedly wounded.
The police building was left gutted when the military withdrew from central Mariupol yesterday afternoon, and anti-Kiev protesters were seen with a captured armoured vehicle that some reports said had been abandoned due to engine trouble.
Mr Avakov said the “anti-terrorist” crackdown in the east – which has been a halting, sometimes hapless operation – was getting tougher with the introduction of reinforcements from regions where support for the government is much stronger.
“For those who come with weapons, shoot, take hostages, torture them, rob people and cover themselves with various slogans, there will be only one reply from the Ukrainian state – destruction,” Mr Avakov said.
A group of armed fighters from the city of Donetsk, about 100km north of Mariupol, said they were travelling to the port city to support local rebels.
They were given a send-off by thousands of people who gathered on Donetsk’s Lenin Square to celebrate Victory Day, which marks the Soviet defeat of fascist Germany.
Many of them marched to the square with second World War veterans and leaders of the separatist movement, who have taken over the regional administration building and declared it the headquarters of their “Donetsk People’s Republic”.
To chants from the crowd of “Russia, Russia” and “Down with the junta” – their term for the Kiev government – rebel activists took to the stage to urge people to vote for Donetsk’s independence from Ukraine in tomorrow’s hastily arranged referendum.