Odessa detainees freed after violent protest

Pro-Russian activists freed after crowd storms Ukraine police station two days after deadly violence hit the port city.

Hundreds of pro-Russian activists have attacked a police station in Ukraine’s southern port city of Odessa, forcing open its gate and smashing windows.

Calling for the release of several people who were arrested during deadly clashes in the city on Friday, hundreds surrounded the building on Sunday, chanting “fascists” at the police contingent placed outside the station.

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from outside the police station, said some of the prisoners were later freed while several others remained in custody. It is thought that about 70 people were released.

“Police did nothing to stop them from leaving,” he said. “The question now is why? It seems the police acquiesced because of the intense violence Odessa has witnessed.”

Shortly before the attack, the Ukraine flag on top of the police station had been replaced with the city’s flag.

“It was a large, angry crowd. Many believe the police could have done more to stop the violence on Friday, but did nothing,” our correspondent said.

The attack came hours after Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the Ukrainian prime minister, announced that the police chief in Odessa had been sacked for the violence two days ago that left dozens dead.

Yatsenyuk made the announcement of Pyotr Lutsyuk’s dismissal on Sunday hours hours after the country’s interim president declared two days of mourning.

He said an investigation into the unrest would be carried out.

In a statement announcing national mourning, interim president Oleksandr Turchynov said: “The day of May 2 was a tragic day for Ukraine. I have signed a decree for two days of mourning in Ukraine for the heroes who died in the course of the anti-terrorist operation and also for those who died in the tragic events in Odessa.”

At least 42 people lost their lives in Odessa on Friday after fighting between pro-Russian and pro-Ukraine armed groups climaxed in an inferno that trapped dozens as both sides hurled petrol bombs.

Nine more people, including four servicemen, died in fighting on the same day as the Ukrainian army intensified what the government calls an “anti-terrorist” operation around the rebel-held town of Slovyansk.

The Kremlin and Ukraine traded accusations over the violence, with Kiev saying the Odessa violence had been “coordinated by sabotage groups from Russia”.

Moscow said it was “outraged” as the scenic port city became a new front in an escalating months-long crisis that has sparked fears of a Russian invasion.

Our correspondent in Odessa said the people there did not accept Kiev’s version of events, and that the mourning period and firing of Lutsyuk would not reduce the tension in the city.

“People walking around the building that was on fire on Friday are dazed and shocked by what happened,” he said. “They reject the idea of Russian involvement and place the blame on the government in Kiev.”

Meanwhile, European military observers held for more than a week by pro-Russian separatists arrived in Germany a day after they were released in Slovyansk.

Observers freed

The seven observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)  – along with five of their Ukrainian assistants – were freed on Saturday.

They were deployed following a pact struck between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the US in mid-April aimed to resolve the crisis, which began with Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“We are deeply relieved that the members of the kidnapped OSCE team have landed unharmed here in Germany, in Berlin,” Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister, said in Berlin.

“I would like to express my deep gratitude and my respect for the infinitely good cooperation we saw.” 

Nicolai Wammen, Denmark’s defence minister, said they would continue to support the OSCE mission.