PRO-RUSSIAN separatists seized a provincial administration building in the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine yesterday and declared the region independent.
Observers warned that the move echoed Russia’s annexing of Crimea and Ukrainian authorities said it had been carried out by Russia to sow unrest in the country.
Activists were reported as saying that a referendum be held no later than 11 May on the possible secession of the Donetsk region, which borders Russia.
Acting president Oleksandr Turchinov called the events gripping eastern regions – where pro-Russian activists have seized government buildings in at least three cities on Sunday – an operation undertaken by Russia to sow instability.
“Anti-terrorism measures will be adopted against those who took up weapons,” Mr Turchinov said, adding that parliament would convene today to consider tougher penalties for separatist actions and even ban parties that engage in separatism.
In a video message posted on the internet, an unidentified pro-Russia activist in the Donetsk government headquarters asked Russian president Vladimir Putin to send “peacekeeping troops” to the region.
“Without your support, without the support of Russia, it will be hard for us to resist the Kiev junta on our own,” he said, referring to the interim authorities that took power after the overthrow of Moscow-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in February.
Earlier in the day, Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russian troops remain stationed within 19 miles of the border and accused Russia of being behind the unrest that broke out in the country’s eastern provinces at the weekend, which he said it could use as a pretext for sending troops across the border.
“The plan is to destabilise the situation, the plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow,” he said, adding that those who took part in the unrest had Russian accents. Eastern Ukraine was the heartland of support for Mr Yanukovich, who fled to Russia after months of protests.
About half the region’s residents are ethnic Russians, many of whom believe Ukraine’s acting authorities are nationalists who will oppress Russians.
Since Crimea held a secession referendum and then was annexed by Russia in March, calls for similar votes in Ukraine’s east have emerged. Ukraine’s interim authorities deny they are infringing the rights of the ethnic Russian population and there has been no evidence of Russians in Ukraine facing harassment.
The international community has expressed growing anxiety over the large Russian troop movements along the Ukrainian border. Nato says up to 40,000 Russian troops have mobilised and present a distinct threat to Ukraine. Russia has said that it has the right to move its troops wherever it wants on its own territory.
Reports claimed that the protesters in Donetsk – which was founded in 1869 by a Welsh businessman, John Hughes, who constructed a steel plant and several coal mines in the region – had also attempted to seize the regional state television broadcaster. The interior ministry said the gunmen fired into the air and police and guards in the building returned fire.
“After that, the attackers fled to an unknown location,” police said.
On Sunday, pro-Russian crowds, which were believed to be armed, stormed government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, all cities in Ukraine’s heavily Russian-speaking east. One witness in Donetsk said the crowd included large numbers of masked men who behaved more aggressively than at previous rallies.
On Saturday, Ukraine’s security service said it had detained a 15-strong armed gang that was planning to seize power in Luhansk. The agency said it seized 300 machine guns, an anti-tank grenade launcher, a large number of grenades, five handguns and firebombs.