Ukraine security forces injured in assault on separatists

Armed gangs seize government buildings in Slaviansk and Donestk

One Ukrainian state security officer was killed and five other members of government forces were wounded in an “anti-terrorist” operation today against pro-Russian separatist militants in a city in the east, the interior minister said.

On the side of the separatists there had been an “unidentifiable number” of casualties during the operation in the town of Slaviansk, the minister, Arsen Avakov, said on his Facebook page.

“There were dead and wounded on both sides,” Mr Avakov said. About 1,000 people were giving support to the separatists, he added.

Pro-Russian activists carrying automatic weapons seized government buildings in the town about 150km (90 miles) from the Russian border yesterday, and set up barricades on the outskirts of the city.


Before the military operation by Ukrainian forces, a group of up to a 100 civilians, many of them elderly women, stood in front of the building, chanting messages of solidarity to the protesters inside, including “Referendum!”, a reference to demands for a local poll to be held to determine a separate status for the region. On the building’s forecourt, which itself was barricaded, protesters beat out a defiant tattoo on shields they were carrying.

Scores of men in the uniforms of Ukraine’s now-defunct riot police occupied the police headquarters in the eastern city of Donetsk hours after armed men seized the local police headquarters and a branch of the security service in Slaviansk.

Donetsk is one of the flashpoints of a wave of pro-Russia protests.

This morning, Mr Avakov told residents in Slaviansk to stay indoors in anticipation of clashes between pro-Russian militants who have seized official buildings and Ukrainian security forces.

"Pass it on to all civilians: they should leave the centre of town, not come out of their apartments, and not go near the windows," Interfax Ukraine news agency quoted him as saying. He also said there was gunfire in the city.

The unrest in Donetsk and Slaviansk, about 80km to the north, were the latest shows of increasing anger in eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population.

It was also the support base for Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president who was ousted in February after months of protests in the capital, Kiev. Ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s east widely fear that the authorities who took over will suppress them.

In a phone call with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, US secretary of state John Kerry “expressed strong concern” that the attacks “were orchestrated and synchronised, similar to previous attacks in eastern Ukraine and Crimea”.

Mr Kerry “made clear that if Russia did not take steps to de-escalate in eastern Ukraine and move its troops back from Ukraine’s border, there would be additional consequences”, the State Department said.

The Russian news agency Itar-Tass, citing Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said Mr Kerry “could not give any concrete facts” to support his allegations. The news agency said Mr Lavrov told Mr Kerry that the crisis in Ukraine was due to the failure of the Ukrainian government “to take into account the legitimate needs and interests of the Russian and Russian-speaking population”.

In Slaviansk, the mayor said the men who seized the police station were demanding a referendum on autonomy and possible annexation by Russia. Protesters in other eastern cities have made similar demands after a referendum in Crimea last month in which voters opted to split off from Ukraine, leading to annexation by Russia.

Witnesses said the men who entered the police building in Donetsk were wearing the uniforms of the Berkut, the feared riot police squad that was disbanded in February after Yanukovych was ousted.

Berkut officers’ violent dispersal of a demonstration in Kiev in November set off vast protests in the capital that culminated in bloodshed in February when more than 100 people died in sniper fire. The acting government says the snipers were police.

It was not immediately clear whether the men who occupied the Donetsk police building had made any demands, but the Donetsk police chief said on national television that he was forced to offer his resignation. Interfax Ukraine reported that pro-Russian protesters had invited the former police chief to resume his duties.

In Slaviansk, about 20 men in balaclavas and armed with automatic rifles and pistols were guarding the entrance to the police station in the city of about 120,000 people, and another 20 were believed to be inside.

They wore St George’s ribbons, which have become a symbol of pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine. The ribbons were originally associated with the Soviet Union’s victory in the second World War.

A masked guard in Slaviansk, who gave his name only as Sergei, said they have “only one demand: a referendum and joining Russia”.

The man said they seized the building because they wanted to protect it from radical nationalists from western Ukraine and “the junta who seized power in Kiev”.

“We don’t want to be slaves of America and the West,” he said, speaking at the seized police station. “We want to live with Russia.”