MOSCOW — Pro-Russia demonstrators on Sunday seized at least three government buildings in industrial cities of eastern Ukraine, which has been plagued by demonstrations in favor of stronger ties to Moscow.
Early in the day several hundred demonstrators carrying Russian flags pushed through a police cordon in front of the regional administration building in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, the UNIAN news agency reported. There were no officials or employees at work in the building and the police refrained from using force to stop the protesters, the report said.
The demonstrators demanded a referendum in the region aimed at joining Russia and called for the release of former riot police officers arrested in Kiev last week. The officers are being held on suspicion of shooting protesters in the Ukrainian capital during violent clashes in February that led to the overthrow of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich.
Later Sunday several hundred pro-Moscow protesters seized the regional administration building in Donetsk and the regional Security Service building in Lugansk, UNIAN said.
No one was reported injured in the incidents in Kharkiv and Donetsk. At least two people were hurt in Lugansk, where authorities responding to the crowd’s demands released six people detained on separatism charges.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said police were ordered not to open fire. “Among the protesters there are many deceived persons who came out for money,” UNIAN reported Avakov as saying.
Ukraine remains deeply divided between those who favor greater ties with the rest of Europe and others, particularly in the eastern regions bordering Russia, who want closer ties with Moscow. Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region in late February after a widely criticized referendum has encouraged some in the east to seek secession.
With Sunday’s clashes, acting Ukrainian President Olexandr Turchinov canceled a planned visit to Lithuania, where he was expected to take part in a conference with members of the European Union’s parliament. He met instead with law enforcement officials in Kiev, UNIAN said.
Many Ukrainians see Moscow’s hand in the continued unrest in the eastern regions of their nation.
The actions of separatists are part of Moscow’s plan to destabilize the situation in the region to the extent which would provide a pretext for Russia to move its troops into Ukraine, military and political analyst Dmitry Tymchuk charged on his Facebook page Sunday night.
“The main problem which arises is how to prevent a bloodshed,” wrote Tymchuk, head of the Kiev-based Center for Military and Political Research. “Fatal casualties are the main aim of the provocateurs, so that Russia could throw in its army … and hold a Crimea-like referendum in these regions.”