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Monday 19 February 2018

Kiev 'helpless' over eastern unrest

Pro-Russian activists storm an administration building in the centre of Luhansk, Ukraine (AP)
Pro-Russian activists storm an administration building in the centre of Luhansk, Ukraine (AP)

Ukraine's police and security forces are "helpless" to quell unrest in two eastern regions bordering Russia, the country's president has said.

Oleksandr Turchynov said in some cases units are cooperating with pro-Russian gunmen who have seized scores of government buildings and taken people hostage.

He said the goal now was to prevent the agitation from spreading to other territories.

"I will be frank: Today, security forces are unable to quickly take the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under control," Mr Turchynov said at a meeting with regional governors.

"The security bodies ... are unable to carry out their duties of protecting citizens. They are helpless in those matters. Moreover, some of those units are either helping or cooperating with terrorist organisations."

Turchynov instructed the governors to try to prevent the threat from spreading to more central and southern regions.

He spoke hours after pro-Russian gunmen seized more administrative buildings in eastern Ukraine.

Insurgents wielding automatic weapons took control and hoisted a separatist flag on top of the city council building in the city of Horlivka in the Donetsk region. They also took control of a police station in the city, adding to another police building which they had controlled for several weeks.

A reporter saw armed men standing guard outside the building and checking the documents of those entering. One of the men said foreign reporters will not be allowed in and threatened to arrest those who do not obey orders. Similar guards were also seen outside the police station.

The insurgents now control buildings in about a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine, demanding broader regional rights as well as greater ties or outright annexation by Russia.

The militiamen are holding some activists and journalists hostage, including a group of observers from a European security organisation.

In Luhansk, one of the largest cities in eastern Ukraine, gunmen in camouflage uniforms have maintained control of several government offices seized yesterday.

Eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population, was the heartland of support for Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted president who fled to Russia in February.

The government that replaced him in Kiev has resisted the insurgents' demands, fearing they could lead to a breakup of the country or mean that more regions could join Russia, as Crimea did.

Kiev and Western governments accuse Moscow of orchestrating the protests in eastern Ukraine.

The United States and the European Union rolled out a fresh set of economic sanctions against Russia this week, but Moscow has remained unbowed, denying its role in the unrest and saying the actions were Kiev's fault.

Mr Turchynov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying: "Mercenaries and special units that are active on Ukrainian territory have been tasked with attacking those regions.

"That is why I am stressing: our task is to stop the spread of the terrorist threat first of all in the Kharkiv and Odessa regions."

Kiev city authorities have announced unexpected middle-of-the night security drills starting tonight and running into tomorrow morning that will involve the state guard service, further stoking tensions.

Russia has placed tens of thousands of troops near the border with Ukraine and Mr Turchynov said the threat of a Russian invasion was real. He talked of creating regional self-defence units throughout the country, according to Interfax.

Some Ukrainians were appalled by the loss of control over eastern regions and accused the central government of inaction.

Valeriy Kalnysh, former editor of the Kommersant daily, wrote on Facebook: "In a normal society when Oleksandr Turchynov admits the fact that the authorities do not control the situation in the east of the country is ground for resignation.

"And not just of him, but all the security forces. But can we afford this now? .... And is it the right move in the conditions of an undeclared war with Russia?"

Yulia Torhovets, a spokeswoman for the Kiev city government, would not provide any details about the drills, saying only that the city made the announcement to keep residents informed.

"We didn't want people to get scared when they see combat equipment," she said. "We didn't want anyone to panic."

Former prime minister and presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko urged Ukrainians to join a resistance force that she was creating that would act in coordination with the army.

"Ukraine is under attack. Russia has begun an undeclared war against our country in the east," she said in a statement. "I call upon all patriots who have ever participated in military operations to join us immediately.

Ukraine is holding a presidential election on May 25 and Ms Tymoshenko is among several top candidates.

Press Association

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