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Tense standoff continues in eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian activists in the village of Andriyivka blame Kiev and its western backers for recent violence.

Last updated: 03 May 2014 15:07
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Ukrainian troops have confronted pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

Kramatorsk, Ukraine - Ukraine is pushing ahead in its operation against rebels, a day after the crisis in the east spread south to Odessa, where dozens have died.

In the eastern city of Sloviansk, a tug-of-war between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists who took hold of the town continued on Saturday with an offensive against the rebels.

At least 40 people were killed in clashes and battles in eastern Ukraine on Friday, making it one of the bloodiest days in the crisis so far.

Ukraine's ongoing political turmoil began in November, when then-President Viktor Yanukovich abandoned a trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow. Weeks of protests toppled Yanukovich in February, but many in eastern Ukraine were unhappy with the move and sought closer ties with Russia.  

This week's events in Slovyansk prompted Russia to call for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

Arseiny Yatseniuk, Ukraine's interim prime minister, warned on Thursday that the country had entered its "most dangerous ten days" since winning independence in 1991, as violence between pro-Russian forces and backers of the Kiev government escalated. 

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, blamed authorities in Kiev and their western backers for "provoking the bloodshed" saying they bear "direct responsibility" for Friday's carnage.

'Getting worse and worse'

In the village of Andriyivka, near Sloviansk, an epicentre of recent conflict, separatists surrounded a Ukrainian military unit on Friday.

 

Some of the separatists, who seemed unarmed, shouted at the soldiers. The standoff was tense at times, but both groups remained peaceful.

Local activist and factory worker Anatoliy Petrovich, 53, said the group stopped dozens of soldiers, believed to have been coming from Sloviansk, early in the morning. He said a corridor would be created so they could leave the eastern region but not go anywhere else within it.

Protesters may start shooting if the Ukrainian state does not remove its troops, Petrovich said. "The fact that they use [the] military against civilians, this may result in civil war… it's getting worse and worse."

Three-quarters of the men in his village are ready to actively fight Ukrainian forces, he said.

Petrovich did not identify himself as Russian. Most people in the village do not want to join Russia, he said, but if the fight goes on they may not have a better option.

Ukrainian soldiers at the scene did not seem intimidated by angry local residents. "No, I'm not afraid… this is my people," said 21-year-old Vlad.

One soldier, after posing for a photo with local protesters, asked to see his image, then raised his thumb and said "good".

Rebels have been standing guard at checkpoints across eastern Ukraine, including on roads leading from the capital of the Donetsk region to Sloviansk. Rebels have been ordering cars to park and people to get out of their vehicles while they are searched.

Some journalists reported being detained by separatists. This has been a common occurrence since pro-Russia groups began a campaign for separation from Ukraine in the southeastern peninsula of Crimea. The region was annexed by Russia after a disputed referendum last month in what forces loyal to Kiev believe to be the beginning of a larger campaign aimed at splitting the country.

TThe village of Andriyivka is also situated next to Kramatorsk, where, on Saturday, the government deployed troops in an effort to reclaim the area.

'People's Republic'

On Friday, Al Jazeera visited Kramatorsk's occupied city hall where a barricade stood flying three flags of the "People's Republic of Donetsk", the self-proclaimed separatist group. 

One poster outside the hall parodied "Uncle Sam" with words reading: "Shut up and enjoy democracy."

Inside, most people were dressed in civilian clothes, while a handful of men in army camouflage carried rifles.

Their local leader, Ivan, is a tall, slim man in his twenties who used to work as a security guard at a local factory. The black combat boots and rifle slung over his right arm signals his newly gained authority.

This is as bad as it's going to get because [the] Ukrainian military is fighting against the Ukrainian people.

Igor, pro-Russia activist

A short drive from city hall, rebels were blocking both entrances to an airfield used by the Ukrainian army for its operation against separatists.

About ten men, including one with a rifle, stood at the rear entrance to the airfield. At first, one of the men called a superior to check if Al Jazeera would be able to pass - but then said they could only negotiate with Russian media.

Two men at the blockade's front entrance wore army fatigues with pro-Russian ribbons and carried rifles while standing guard alongside three men in civilian clothes.

One was local factory worker Igor. "I don't want more re-enforcements to come here, especially the Americans. I want independence," the 39-year-old told Al Jazeera.

Igor said that Ukraine's industrial eastern region would be fine if it gained autonomy because its economy remains strong and self-sustaining.

The area has been giving money away from their local budget to the west, he complained, urging authorities to keep the funds in the east.

Igor criticised Kiev for not recognising that officials there have come to power through what he called a coup, and said the government never bothered to ask all the country's people if they wanted to join the European Union or NATO.

Igor identified himself as Ukrainian and said all the people in his movement were similarly Ukrainian, although many supporters of the rebels identify themselves as part of the Russian minority.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has argued that, since the toppling of the pro-Moscow government in Kiev, fascists had taken over and members of the Russian minority were being oppressed.

Western countries argue that Putin is behind the movement that has seen citizens in the east occupy public buildings and create barricades. The Russian leader denies such charges.

Igor said Russia was not helping him or his fellow separatists - but welcomed Russian support and intervention. "I don't see any benefit to joining the EU, either economically or politically."

While Igor does not support the interim government, he also criticised ousted Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovich for fleeing.

"He should have stayed, he should have defended what we do."

When asked if he was afraid of an impending war, he said the situation looked grim. "This is as bad as it's going to get because [the] Ukrainian military is fighting against the Ukrainian people."

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Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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