The mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city was shot in the back yesterday, as the West hit Russia with more sanctions for allegedly fomenting unrest in the east of the country.
Armed insurgents tacitly backed by Moscow seized more government buildings. They are seeking greater autonomy – possibly even independence or to become part of Russia.
Ukraine’s acting government and the West have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest, which they fear Moscow could use as a pretext for an invasion.
Hennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, was shot in the back while cycling on the outskirts of the city and underwent surgery. His condition was reported to be “grave but stable”.
There was no word on who was behind the attack – and Mr Kernes was a man who could have angered both sides. He opposed the Maidan movement that toppled president Viktor Yanukovych in February and was thought to have sent activists to Kiev from eastern Ukraine to harass those protesters. But he has since softened his stance toward the new Kiev government.
In a bid to ratchet up the pressure on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, US president Barack Obama’s government levied new sanctions on seven Russian officials and 17 companies with links to Mr Putin’s inner circle and revoked licences for some high-tech items that could be used by the Russian military.
In Brussels, the European Union moved to add 15 more officials to its Russian sanctions list. That decision, reached by the ambassadors to the bloc’s 28 nations, was being formally confirmed by the EU’s governments last night.
Kharkiv is in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian gunmen have seized government buildings and police stations, set up roadblocks and staged protests to demand greater autonomy or annexation by Russia.
But unlike the neighbouring Donetsk region, Kharkiv has been largely unaffected by the insurgency – its administration building was briefly seized by pro-Russian activists earlier this month but then promptly cleared.
The city’s mayor has been largely credited for this – at a meeting of eastern Ukrainian leaders and acting prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk earlier this month, Mr Kernes said he did not support the pro-Russian insurgents and backed a united Ukraine.
Mr Kernes’ friend Mykhailo Dobkin, a former Kharkiv governor, said the gunmen had been aiming at the mayor’s heart and wanted to kill him in an effort to destabilise the city.
“If you want to know my opinion, they were shooting not at Kernes, but at Kharkiv,” he said.
Mr Dobkin is among several candidates running in Ukraine’s 25 May presidential election.
Yesterday, masked militants with automatic weapons seized another city hall and a police station in eastern Ukraine, this time in Kostyantynivka, 100 miles from the Russian border. It is 22 miles south of Slovyansk, which has been in the hands of insurgents for more than three weeks.
After the latest seizure, about 15 armed men guarded the city hall building. Some posed for pictures with residents.
Many in the east have suggested a referendum on autonomy or turning Ukraine into a loose federation. Justice minister Petro Petrenko said parliament would consider the issue today.
The increasingly ruthless pro-Russian insurgency, meanwhile, is turning to an ominous new tactic: kidnapping.
About 40 people are being held hostage in makeshift jails in Slovyansk, including journalists, pro-Ukraine activists and seven military observers from the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe, Ukraine’s Security Service said.
The German government called yesterday for the immediate release of the observers, who were detained on Friday over allegations of spying for Nato.
• The Serious Fraud Office has opened a criminal investigation into possible money laundering associated with corruption in Ukraine and frozen $23 million (£13.7m) of assets in the UK.