Pro-Russian militants stormed a police station in Odessa yesterday and freed nearly 70 fellow activists as the Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk blamed police corruption in the city for dozens of deaths during rioting on Friday.
“Russians won’t abandon their own!” militants chanted as they smashed windows and broke down the gate at the compound, where their comrades had been held since Friday. Others shouted “Russia! Russia!” and “we will not forgive!”
Odessa police said 67 activists were allowed to walk free. Some officers were offered the black and orange St George’s ribbon, a Russian military insignia that has become a symbol of the revolt, and were cheered by the crowd of several hundred.
Odessa is the major city between the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in March, and the Moldovan separatist region of Trans-Dniester, where Russia has a military peacekeeping contingent.
Concerns are mounting that Russia ultimately aims to take control of a huge swath of Ukraine from Trans-Dniester to the east. Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has described the area as being historically Russian land, has said he does not want to send in troops but will if necessary.
Mr Yatsenyuk, who briefly visited the city, said police were being investigated for their failure to maintain order and that he had charged prosecutors with “finding all instigators, all organisers and all those that under Russian leadership began a deadly attack on Ukraine and Odessa”.
Earlier yesterday, hundreds of pro-Russian demonstrators gathered in front of Odessa’s trade union building to honour those who died in Friday’s blaze. Some draped a large Russian flag on the face of the building.
By mid-afternoon, a group of several hundred people marched to Odessa’s police station to demand the release of fellow activists jailed over their involvement in the unrest. They attacked security surveillance cameras and smashed windows. Shortly afterwards, some of them managed to break into an inner courtyard. Police then yielded to the crowd’s demands and released the prisoners.
As detainees emerged from the police station, the crowd cheered.
Mr Yatsenyuk’s visit to Odessa came as Ukrainian authorities renewed their push to quell a pro-Russian insurgency in the east. Interior minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement on his Facebook page that an “anti-terrorist operation” was being executed in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, the latest flashpoint for unrest.
He wrote: “The operation was carried out by fighters of the National Guard and the armed forces. The active phase resumed at dawn. We will not stop.”
The city saw a stand-off on Saturday that culminated in pro-Russian insurgents setting buses alight to ward off attacks. Russian state television has reported ten deaths, including two among government forces, during clashes in Kramatorsk so far. Those figures could not be independently confirmed.
Mr Yatsenyuk said: “There were dozens of casualties resulting from a well prepared and organised action against people, against Ukraine and against Odessa.”
Yesterday there was little sign of movement from either government or insurgents on the ground. The burned-out shells of trolleybuses and a minibus lay in the road untouched.
Friday’s deaths happened after running clashes between supporters and opponents of Moscow on the streets of Odessa, where the majority of people speak Russian. Pro-Russian activists were trapped in the city’s trade union building as it burned down.
It was not clear who had thrown the petrol bombs that started the fire, but pro-Russian demonstrators yesterday blamed pro-Kiev activists.