Fighting erupts at Odessa blaze site in Ukraine

A petrol bomb is thrown at Trade Unions House in Odessa on Friday.  Picture: Reuters/AP
A petrol bomb is thrown at Trade Unions House in Odessa on Friday. Picture: Reuters/AP
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VIOLENCE once again erupted in the Ukrainian city of Odessa yesterday as demonstrators vented their anger outside a building where dozens of pro-Russian protesters died in a fire.

Riot police struggled to contain large crowds as they stood in lines blocking the Trade Unions House building which was a focus of riots between rival groups.

At least 42 people were killed in a street battle in Odessa on Friday that ended with pro-Russian protesters dying in a burning building – a move seen by many as taking the country closer to civil war.

Video footage has since emerged showing petrol bombs exploding against the walls of the building.

Yesterday’s violence began despite the declaration of a three-day mourning period in Odessa. Demonstrators arrived at the scene of the fire to lay flowers and light candles, but tempers flared as they squared up to riot police.

Crowds surged against lines of officers who blocked access to the burned-out building, while pro-Kiev supporters were attacked with clubs as angry protesters burned Ukraine’s national flag.

The Kremlin, which has tens of thousands of soldiers on Ukraine’s eastern border and asserts the right to invade to protect Russian speakers, said the Kiev government and its western backers were responsible for the deaths.

“Their arms are up to their elbows in blood,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Meanwhile, an insurgent leader in eastern Ukraine released observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) who had been held since last month.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov confirmed the observers had been released in the eastern town of Slaviansk yesterday, and that there were no conditions for their release.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have again spoken by phone about the crisis.

Lavrov urged Kerry to put pressure on Kiev to stop its military operation, which he said risked “plunging the country into a fratricidal conflict”.

Meanwhile, Kerry said Moscow should stop backing the pro-Russian separatists.

Both men also discussed the possibility of greater involvement by the OSCE in trying to find a solution to the crisis.

The violence in Odessa was the most serious in Ukraine since February, when more than 90 people were killed during protests in Kiev against the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.

The rebels aim to hold a referendum next Sunday on secession from Ukraine, similar to one staged in March in Crimea region, which was seized and annexed by Russia in a move that analysts say has overturned the post-Cold War diplomatic order.

Early yesterday, the Kiev government resumed military action against Russian separatists in the east of the country, with fighting reported in some areas.

In Kramatorsk, south of rebel-held Sloviansk, Ukrainian forces recaptured the headquarters of the SBU security service from pro-Russian separatists, according to the interior ministry.

Interior minister Arsen Avakov said the “active phase” of the military operation was continuing, with Ukrainian forces also taking a television tower in Kramatorsk.

The seven international military observers freed yesterday were captured a week ago and held in the rebel-held town of Sloviansk.

Five Ukrainian officers captured with the observers, who are linked to the OSCE, were also released.

Pro-Russian separatists in Sloviansk said that they released the observers “without conditions”.