Ukraine sent an elite national guard unit to re-establish control over the southern port city of Odessa yesterday as troops fought pitched gun battles with a pro-Russian militia that had seized Slovyansk, in the east.
The twin moves reflected an apparent escalation of efforts to bring both regions back under Kiev’s control. The possible loss of Odessa in the south-west, on the Black Sea coast, plus parts of eastern Ukraine could leave the country completely landlocked.
Ukraine has already lost a significant part of its coastline in March, after the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia.
Gunfire and multiple explosions rang out yesterday in and around Slovyansk, a city of 125,000 people that has become the focus of the armed insurgency against the new interim government in Kiev.
Interior minister Arsen Avakov said that government troops were battling about 800 pro-Russian militants, who were deploying large-calibre weapons and mortars. His department reported four officers killed and 30 wounded in the fighting.
A pro-Russian militia spokesman in Slovyansk said an unspecified number of people were killed and wounded in the clashes, including a 20-year-old woman killed by a stray bullet. Both sides indicated fighting was taking place at several sites around the city.
The goal of the pro-Russian insurgency is ostensibly a push for broader autonomy in parts of Ukraine, but some insurgents favour seceding and joining up with Russia. Authorities in Kiev accuse Moscow of backing the insurgents and fear that Russia could try to invade and grab more territory. Russia has tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine’s eastern border.
For weeks, Odessa had remained largely peaceful even as violence erupted across eastern Ukraine. But 46 people died on Friday after riots broke out and a government building was set on fire.
Pro-Russian activists gathered yesterday in the city for the funeral of a regional member of parliament, Vyacheslav Markin, who died from his burns two days after the fire. Mr Markin was known for speaking out against the central government in Kiev.
Activists shouted “Hero! Hero!” and vowed to avenge Mr Markin’s death.
“Kiev doesn’t control the situation in the country, Kiev controls only one half of Ukraine,” said Dmitry Sheiko, 32, who was wearing the St George black-and-orange ribbon, a ubiquitous symbol of the pro-Russian protest movement.
“Even in Odessa they can’t maintain order, which means that we will restore order ourselves.”
Despite this, the city remained calm yesterday and the pro-Russian forces made no new attempts to occupy government buildings. People gathered at the scorched trade union building to lay flowers and commemorate victims of the fire, but the crowd was peaceful.
“This is a tragedy for all of Ukraine,” said Nadezhda Yelenchuk, 42, a teacher. “This is the result of a civil war that has already begun in Ukraine. We need a powerful government that will stop the bloodshed.”
Riots over the weekend brought into question the loyalty of Odessa’s police forces. On Sunday, pro-Russian demonstrators stormed the city’s police headquarters and freed 67 people who had been detained in connection with the rioting.
The interior ministry said in a statement yesterday it was sending an elite national guard unit from Kiev to re-establish control in the city, and said 42 other people arrested during the rioting were being sent to another region for investigation, presumably to prevent local police from releasing more prisoners.
The international community has accused Russia of fomenting the unrest in an attempt to destabilise Ukraine and derail the upcoming 25 May presidential elections. In return, Russia has vociferously condemned Ukraine’s security operations in the east and blamed Kiev for not preventing the Odessa fire.
The Russian foreign ministry yesterday published a 70-page report that it said listed human rights violations by “ultra-nationalist, neo-Nazi and extremist forces” in Ukraine. The Kremlin said the ministry report “confirms that … violations of basic human rights in Ukraine have become widespread”.