Ukrainian government walks a tightrope under pressure to act against pro-Russian separatists
ONE of the men tore off his balaclava, declaring that he was not afraid to be identified; the face beneath was painted bright blue.
Another was armed with what appeared to be a harpoon while others were preparing Molotov cocktails. Outside, piles of tyres, bags of cement and rolls of razor wire were being assembled. The Peoples' Republic of Donetsk was preparing fresh defences against an expected onslaught.
The Ukrainian government, which is under heavy public pressure to act decisively, has given an ultimatum of 48 hours to the separatists in this eastern city to disarm and leave the administrative building they have been occupying or face an attack.
It remains uncertain whether the government would be prepared to carry out the threat, bringing with it the near certainty of casualties and the possibility of intervention by the Kremlin.
The administration in Kiev does not need reminding that Vladimir Putin's authorisation from his parliament for using troops was not just for Crimea, which was subsequently annexed, but applied to all of Ukraine.
The acting interior minister in Kiev, Arsen Avakov, had announced that a "special police task force" had already arrived in Donetsk. However, there was no security presence near the "siege" in the city centre.
Twenty miles to the west, Ukrainian armoured personnel carriers and light artillery were stopped by pro-Russian local people lined up across the road. There were prolonged arguments.
The officers tried to stress that they were, in fact, headed for the border, across which 40,000 Russian troops are reported to be stationed.
The demonstrators accused them of lying, accusing them of trying to "invade Donetsk".
After a while the convoy headed off on another route.
In Kiev, acting president Oleksandr Turchynov hoped that troops may not be needed after all. He offered an amnesty to the separatists in Donetsk and nearby Luhansk, where the headquarters of the state security organisation has been taken over, promising: "There would be no criminal prosecution of people who give up their weapons and leave the buildings."
Nevertheless, there was no inclination for a compromise inside the administrative building in Donetsk.
Aleksei Babanin, who was carrying a baseball bat, said: "This so-called amnesty is no different from the ultimatum; they want us to give up this building; we won't do that. We are not going to leave until we get a referendum.
"If they storm us, they will end up by killing a lot of civilians. Then we will definitely need Russian peacekeepers."
The Ukrainian authorities had earlier ended a similar stand-off in Kharkiv, arresting 70, without recourse to arms.
"They will find it very difficult to force us out, see how narrow the stairs are, they will have to take this floor by floor," said Nicolai, who claimed to have been a gunner with Russian forces in Chechnya.
"We are prepared for any assault, we are well prepared."
In the group, he maintained, there were around 800 "trained men ready to defend the building" but refused to discuss what kind of weapons they have. In Luhansk, Tatyana Pogukai, an officer with the police said the barricaded activists had a variety of arms, including "200 to 300 Kalashnikov automatic rifles. They are not going to give them up until they get a referendum."
That was also the rallying cry among the crowd of around 1,000 in Donetsk outside the administrative building, with posters stating: "US and EU, hands off Donetsk" and "Yesterday Crimea: today Donbass".
Valentina Komorowski (38) – wanted to know: "Why is it all right for Scotland to have a referendum and not us? They even have people in Africa getting a separate country (South Sudan) but not us."
Svetlana Vorosilovina was adamant that the Donbass region could not stay with the west of the country "because there is always the danger that those fascists from the Maidan (the centre of protests in Kiev) will come and do terrible things."
Later, the loudspeaker started playing music: battle hymns of the Red Army from the Great Patriotic War. (© Independent News Service)
Independent News Service