Hundreds of pro-Kremlin demonstrators seized official buildings in Ukraine’s eastern regions, where separatist unrest turned deadly last month, urging referendums on joining Russia.
Buildings in the cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk were occupied yesterday by protesters with Russian flags who also called for a boycott of May 25 presidential elections. Amid the unrest, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov canceled a trip to Lithuania and convened a special meeting of law enforcement officials, according to the website of the Ukrainian parliament.
Ukraine’s government, which came to power after Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country last month, has accused Russia of stoking tensions in the country’s eastern regions following the annexation of Crimea. The U.S. and NATO have urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back thousands of troops massed on his neighbor’s eastern border in the worst standoff since the Cold War.
“Putin and Yanukovych contracted and paid for another round of separatist unrest eastern Ukraine,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook Inc. page. Organizers of the rallies may face as long as eight years in prison, the ministry said on its website.
About 200 people seized the governor’s office in Donetsk, Alla Konyk, a spokeswoman for the regional prosecutor’s office, said in remarks televised by Ukraine’s privately held Channel 5. Three people, including a policeman, were injured in Luhansk during the storming of regional directorate of Ukraine’s security service, the channel reported.
About 300 pro-Russian activists took over the regional government office in Kharkiv, demanding the local authorities carry out a referendum on federalization, according to the Ukrainska Pravda website.
Police began investigations in each of the three cities.
The unrest was initiated by “armed provocateurs,” Vitali Klitschko, leader of the UDAR party, said in a website statement. Billionaire lawmaker Petro Poroshenko, the leading presidential candidate, told Hromadske Radio today that moves to destabilize Ukraine’s eastern regions are aimed at disrupting next month’s elections.
Putin says Russian speakers in Ukraine are in danger after Yanukovych’s ouster, an allegation the new administration in Kiev denies. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accuses Putin of plotting to invade its eastern regions and has vowed military retaliation if Russian troops cross the border.