Hundreds of pro-Russian separatists, some armed with assault rifles, seized government buildings and laid siege to police headquarters in a second Ukrainian regional capital yesterday as they expanded the reach of their rebellion against Kiev.
Their storming of the regional administration and prosecutor's office in Luhansk, just 15 miles from the Russian border, came as John Kerry, the US secretary of state, revealed that American eavesdroppers have overheard intelligence operatives being directed by Moscow.
"We know exactly who's giving those orders, we know where they are coming from," he said, in a private meeting, the details of which were leaked yesterday.
"Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow and everybody can tell the difference in the accents, in the idioms, in the language."
The new seizures in Luhansk, 80 miles east of the centre of the rebellion in Donetsk, suggest that the separatists are continuing the pattern of occupations that has spread across eastern Ukraine over the past month.
Pro-Russian gunmen had held the Ukrainian security service building in Luhansk since early April, but seizures of police stations and government buildings since then have been concentrated in the Donetsk region.
The new takeovers came as the European Union imposed sanctions on 15 individuals including the head of the GRU, Russia's military intelligence service, and a rebel leader in eastern Ukraine that Brussels identified as a GRU agent.
The leaked tape of Mr Kerry, speaking on Friday, highlighted American concerns over operations run by the GRU inside east Ukraine.
"It's not an accident that you have some of the same people identified who were in Crimea and in Georgia and who are now in east Ukraine," he said, according to the Daily Beast website. "This is insulting to everybody's intelligence. It's thuggism, it's rogue state-ism."
The EU imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 15 people including the chief of staff of the Russian armed forces and the head of the country's military intelligence service.
The action came after Washington and Brussels accused Russia of failing to abide by the agreement reached by Ukraine, Russia, America and the EU earlier this month. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Telegraph Media Group Limited