Tension as Ukrainian army abandons city before vote
UKRAINE'S security forces allowed pro-Russian protesters to rule the streets of the second-biggest city in the Donetsk region yesterday as the self-styled 'People's Republic' prepared for today's referendum on independence.
Their apparent withdrawal followed one of the bloodiest military operations of the crisis in the city of Mariupol, when the National Guard used heavy machine guns mounted on BMP combat vehicles to rake the local police headquarters with bullets, driving the insurgents out.
The battle on Friday claimed at least five lives and possibly more than 20, but yesterday the security forces vanished from the centre of Mariupol. Instead, they took up station at a handful of checkpoints on the periphery, leaving the city itself, with 500,000 people, under the de facto control of pro-Russians.
Tensions throughout the region were high ahead of today's poll, which many fear will lead eastern Ukraine down the same path as Crimea. It was recently annexed by Russia after a plebiscite in favour of the change.
Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, warned residents of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two eastern regions where the referendum is being held, that they would be courting catastrophe if they voted 'yes' to separatism.
The vote, which was organised on an ad hoc basis with no clear control of authenticity of ballot papers or voter lists, could determine if the Western-backed Kiev government and pro-Russian eastern regions find a compromise or whether Ukraine slides into civil war.
"A dreadful terror is in train, with the support of a large part of the local population," Mr Turchynov said on his website. "It is a complex problem when a population deceived by (Russian) propaganda support terrorists."
As recently as Friday, only one building in Mariupol – the local municipal headquarters – had been in the hands of the protesters. Yesterday, they appeared to be masters of the city as their barricades of concrete slabs and bricks blocked the main streets.
Jubilant protesters set one abandoned armoured vehicle ablaze, causing its ammunition to explode. Other men posed triumphantly for photographs.
Local people vented their fury with Ukraine's security forces, accusing them of killing civilians. The roofless shell of the police headquarters, with charred beams stark against the sky, showed the ferocity of the battle.
A steady procession of tearful women arrived to lay flowers at the steps. They believe that Kiev's "anti-terrorist operation", designed to restore government control over the region, is actually directed at ordinary people.
"I feel grief, hatred and rage," said one 25-year-old woman, who brought a bouquet in memory of the dead. "Look at me, do I look like a terrorist?" she asked.
"Our people were shot and killed. I feel hatred towards our government. We will struggle against them. We won't give our city to them."
Arsen Avatov, Ukraine's interior minister, said the operation had "annihilated" the "terrorists" who had seized the police station.
But some uniformed policemen are believed to have helped the occupation of their own headquarters. In the final battle, the National Guard and some police officers appear to have fought one another.
"Bullets were fired into our yard," said Nadezhda Dolgova, 73, who lives nearby. "I was defended only by God." Another local, Andreiy Kolesnikov, said he came under fire while helping the wounded.
"With my own hands and with the help of others, I carried eight wounded people out of this building," he said. "They fired at unarmed people. When I was standing with my arms up, they shot at me."
Devoid of any police, Mariupol showed signs of slipping into lawlessness yesterday. Most shops in the centre closed their doors, and a few were pillaged.
"There is no government here – there is just chaos," said one man. "There is looting. Shops are being burnt. Unless we defend our city, our government will not do this."
Friday's battle was the latest in a series of operations that have infuriated local people. Last Wednesday, the security forces temporarily expelled pro-Russian occupiers from City Hall by drenching the building with tear gas.
When the security forces appear, they are often confronted by angry crowds, with protesters blocking the path of armoured vehicles.
The popular fury means Ukrainian forces can only execute selected raids inside the city: they seem incapable of holding their gains.
Local people say Ukraine's post-revolutionary government consists of "extremists" and even "fascists". They see themselves as protecting their city from the threat of Kiev.
Pro-Russian leaders play on these fears to justify the creation of their "People's Republic", and today's referendum is designed to give an appearance of legitimacy to a declaration of independence. The ballot paper asks people to say "yes" or "no" to the "act of self-rule" of Donetsk.
Many believe this will prove the first step towards joining Russia.
Mr Turchynov urged people to join "round table" talks for greater autonomy, adding: "Those who stand for self-rule do not understand that it would mean complete destruction of the economy, social programmes and life in general for the majority of the population."