Ukraine’s police and security forces are “helpless” to quell unrest in two eastern regions bordering Russia, the country’s acting president said yesterday.
Oleksandr Turchynov also admitted in some cases his troops were co-operating with pro-Russian militias who have seized scores of government buildings and taken people hostage.
Mr Turchynov said the goal now was to prevent the agitation spreading.
“I will be frank: today, security forces are unable to quickly take the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under control,” Mr Turchynov told a meeting of 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 co-operating with terrorist organisations.”
Mr Turchynov instructed the governors to try to protect central and southern regions.
“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,” said Mr Turchynov, the Interfax news agency reported.
Kiev authorities, meanwhile, announced late-night military drills starting from yesterday, 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 called for the creation of regional self-defence units.
Some Ukrainians – appalled by the interim government’s loss of control over much of the east – have accused the Kiev administration of inaction.
Valeriy Kalnysh, former editor of the Kommersant newspaper, wrote: “In a normal society when Oleksandr Turchynov admits the fact that the authorities do not control the situation in the east is ground for resignation. And not just of him, but all the security forces.”
Mr Turchynov spoke hours after pro-Russian gunmen seized more government buildings in the east. Armed with automatic weapons, the gunmen hoisted their own flag on the city council building in Horlivka, in Donetsk region. They also took control of a police station, adding to another police building which they had controlled for several weeks.
The insurgents now control buildings in about a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine. They are 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 maintained control of several government offices they seized on Tuesday.
Eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population, was the heartland of support for Viktor Yanukovich, 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 break-up of the country or mean that more regions could join Russia, as Crimea has already done.
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 sanctions against Russia this week, but Moscow has remained unbowed, denying its role in the unrest and saying it was all Kiev’s fault.