Ukraine's security forces were locked in a standoff last night with armed members of nationalist group Right Sector, after a gun battle apparently triggered by a dispute over smuggling killed at least two people and injured 11.
The clash in the western town of Mukacheve, near Ukraine's border with the European Union states of Hungary, Romania, Poland and Slovakia, underscored fears over crime, corruption and the rise of scores of armed "volunteer battalions" in the country.
The gun battle began outside a sports complex and continued at a petrol station in Mukacheve, and involved fire from a heavy machine gun and a rocket launcher, which left several cars in flames.
Members of Right Sector said they wanted to halt lucrative cross-border smuggling by groups linked to a local parliamentary deputy, who is reputed to have close ties to pro-Russian figures in Ukraine and was an ally of ousted former president Viktor Yanukovich.
Right Sector said the deputy’s armed henchmen, in collaboration with corrupt local police officers, had ambushed and tried to kill its members.
Several officials and analysts said the clash could be part of a “turf war” between the deputy, Mikhail Lanyo, and local members of Right Sector over control of cigarette smuggling that is worth millions of euro each year.
Mr Lanyo denied criminal activity and claimed to have no idea why he was targeted by Right Sector, which came to prominence during the violent protests in Kiev that ousted Mr Yanukovich in February 2014.
“I appeal again to these people, come and surrender. It’s the best way out of this situation for you and others,” Vitaly Malikov, deputy chief of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), said in Mukacheve last night of an unknown number of Right Sector members hiding in nearby hills.
“We’re ready to hold talks with them – but if that doesn’t work, then we’ll detain them,” Mr Malikov added. When asked when the deadline to surrender would expire, he replied: “Time has already run out.”
Talks with Poroshenko
National Guard troops and armoured vehicles were reportedly surrounding Right Sector bases in western Ukraine last night. Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh said he was holding talks on the issue with Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko and other senior officials.
Right Sector has fought alongside other volunteer battalions and the Ukrainian military against Russian-backed separatists in eastern regions, but yesterday its members left their positions in the conflict zone on Mr Yarosh’s orders, a battalion leader with the nom-de-guerre “Chorny” (“Black”) told Ukrainian media.
A few dozen members and supporters of Right Sector gathered outside the presidential administration in Kiev yesterday to demand top-level backing for the group, and similar protests took place outside official buildings in several other cities.
“We have two battalions in the conflict zone but in the whole of Ukraine we have 18 or 19 reserve battalions,” said Right Sector spokesman Artyom Skoropadsky. “If necessary, we can send the reserve battalions anywhere. We could send [them] all to the presidential administration building and interior ministry.”