Ukraine’s acting president last night urged the United Nations to send peacekeeping troops to eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia gunmen were still on the rampage, occupying local government offices, police stations and airports.
The request came from a government that has proved powerless to rein in pro-Russia separatists in its eastern and southern regions, where insurgents have seized or barricaded government buildings in at least nine cities, demanding more autonomy from the new government in Kiev.
The Kiev government and western leaders accuse Russia of instigating the unrest and of deploying armed Russian agents in civilian clothing.
In a telephone call with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, acting Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov suggested that an “anti-terrorist operation” be conducted jointly by Ukraine’s security forces and UN peacekeepers.
But peacekeepers would have to be authorised by the UN Security Council – where Russia holds a veto over such action.
Mr Turchynov’s deadline for insurgents to give up their weapons and vacate their homemade barricades passed yesterday without any visible action – instead, the violence continued.
A pro-Russian mob stormed a Ukrainian police station in Horlivka, a city in the Donetsk region near the Russian border in the east of the country.
Later, armed men in masks also seized control of a military airport outside the city of Slovyansk, also in the Donetsk region.
Mr Turchynov said: “The Russian Federation is sending special units to the east of our country, which seize administrative buildings with the use of weapons and are putting the lives of hundreds of thousands of our citizens in danger.”
The events echoed those in Crimea, annexed by Russia last month. Key regional facilities were seized by Russian troops aided by local militiamen.
A spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin said yesterday that he has received “numerous appeals” from eastern Ukraine “asking him to help and interfere in one way or another”.
The spokesman added that Mr Putin was “watching the developments in those regions with great concern”, but would not give further details.
The developments came as the European Union’s foreign ministers met in Luxembourg to consider further sanctions against Russia, three days ahead of a Geneva conference seeking ways to defuse tensions.
Diplomats from the United States, Russia, the EU, Ukraine and Switzerland were expected at the one-day talks on Thursday.
Russia has warned the Kiev government not to use force against the protesters, saying it could thwart the Geneva talks.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov yesterday again denied Russian agents were operating in eastern Ukraine, saying it would contradict Moscow’s interests. He challenged Ukraine “not to be shy” about backing its claims of capturing Russian security officers with facts.
In Horlivka, one of the men directing the raid on the police headquarters introduced himself as a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army when speaking to a line of policemen who had switched sides. In a video posted online, the man, dressed in an unmarked green camouflage uniform, urged the policemen to obey their new chief and to attach St George’s ribbons to their uniforms, which have become a symbol of the pro-Russia protesters.
Acting deputy interior minister Mykola Velichkovych acknowledged yesterday that some police officers in eastern regions were switching sides.
He said: “In the east we have seen numerous acts of sabotage from the side of police.”
Ever since Ukraine’s pro- Russia president Viktor Yanukovich fled to Russia in late February, Moscow has demanded that Ukraine change its constitution to turn the country into a loose federal state. Ukraine has said that its neighbour has no business telling it what type of government to have. After refusing demands for a referendum by separatists in the east, Mr Turchynov indicated yesterday that holding a nationwide referendum on Ukraine’s status was a possibility. He said such a vote could be held on 25 May, along with the presidential election.
He expressed confidence that Ukrainians would vote against turning the country into a federation and against its break-up.
The West has accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest.
“Many of the armed units that we’ve seen were outfitted in bulletproof vests, camouflage uniforms with insignia removed,” Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, said at a UN Security Council session on Sunday.
“These armed units raised Russian and separatist flags over seized buildings and have called for referendums and union with Russia. We know who is behind this.”
Vadim Karasyov, a political analyst in Kiev, said the Kremlin was using Ukraine’s ousted president to help stoke separatist tensions. He added: “The Kremlin is implementing its scenario in the east, using Yanukovich and his loyalists, while Russian instructors are running the show.”
For the last two months, Russia has stationed tens of thousands of troops massed along Ukraine’s eastern border. Western governments have expressed fears that Moscow might use the violence in the region as a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine, in a repeat of events in Crimea last month.
Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin denied Western and Ukrainian claims that Moscow was behind the violence.