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Armed pro-Russian extremists launch coordinated attacks in Donetsk Oblast, seize regional police headquarters, set up checkpoints (UPDATE)

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April 12, 2014, 7:48 p.m. | Ukraine — by Mark Rachkevych

Armed pro-Russian extremists guard a police station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk after it was seized by a few dozen gunmen on April 12
© Kostyantyn Chernichkin

Mark Rachkevych

Mark has been a reporter for the Kyiv Post since 2006, but joined full-time in 2009. A native Chicagoan where he was the co-founder of the now defunct Glasshouse Magazine, Mark currently is an editor of business news and still contributes stories on an ongoing basis. He is a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, a graduate of St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, and fluent in the Ukrainian and Russian languages.

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine -- In what looks like a special Russian military operation that resembles the Kremlin's Crimean invasion, masked men in army fatigues and bulletproof vests, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, seized the police station and district Security Service of Ukraine headquarters in Sloviansk, a Donetsk Oblast city of 125,000 people. 

Later in the day, the Interior Ministry in Donetsk was also seized by gunmen.

The attacks, just like the ones that led to Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, appeared to catch the Ukrainian government off-guard. After police repelled an assault on the Donetsk general prosecutor's office earlier in the day on April 12, the takeover of the oblast's Interior Ministry headquarters and two other police stations in the oblast crippled any visible or effective response from law enforcement.

Repeated attempts to reach interim Donetsk Oblast governor Serhiy Taruta, who calls himself "a crisis manager," were unsuccessful.

The swiftness and scope of today's attacks, as well as the support of the armed takeovers by the mayor of Sloviansk, suggest that the operation was planned well in advance and had support from within the ranks of Ukraine's government, including its law enforcement agencies, in Donetsk Oblast. In fact, the oblast's police chief, Kostyantyn Pozhydayev, resigned to meet demands of the pro-Russian demonstrators.

Masked gunmen also set up at least three checkpoints, including two near Sloviansk and one near Horlivka. Gunmen piled sand and tires in the median with a Russian flag on top at one of the checkpoints, where the Kyiv Post saw four armed men dressed similarly to Russian soldiers. They stopped trucks and mini-buses and appeared to be there to intercept weapons that could be brought in by Ukraine's government.

Pro-Russian extremists also reportedly tried to take the police station in Shakhtarsk, another Donetsk city of 75,000 people, but that attempt failed, according to Dmytro Tkachenko of the Committee of Voters, a nongovernmental organization in Donetsk. Militants also failed in their attempt to storm the general prosecutor's office in Donetsk this morning.

However, Ukrainian media reported that armed pro-Russian militants seized the city police station in the small city of Chervony Lyman.

Pro-Russian militants have seized the Sloviansk police station and SBU building in Donetsk Oblast on Saturday, as well as the Interior Ministry in Donetsk. Armed gunmen also have been holding the Donetsk Oblast State Administration Building since April 6.

Many predicted this weekend that armed pro-Russian separatists would step up their campaign of intimidation and terror throughout eastern Ukraine, including Donetsk Oblast, home to 10 percent of Ukraine's population of 45 million people.

The well-organized, well-armed takeovers resembled the early stages of the Russian military intervention in Crimea on Feb. 27, when masked gunmen took over strategic locations on the peninsula after the Kremlin installed its own prime minister. Russia now claims Crimea as its own.

The video shows how the gunmen broke windows of the police station before entering One of them then placed Russian flag on the top of the building. The crowd chants "Russia!"

One of the masked armed gunmen -- among 70 who took part in the takeover of the Sloviansk police station -- called the target a strategic building with a weapons arsenal that the militants began handing out to protesters. 

Demanding May 11 referendum on joining Russian Federation

The gunman also said that protesters have the same demands as others in eastern Ukraine: a May 11 referendum that would let voters decided whether to join the Russian Federation or remain in Ukraine.

The mayor of Sloviansk, Nellie Shtepa, who actively opposed the EuroMaidan Revolution, made a brief appearance at the city police station. She got out of her car and said "I support you" to the militants who seized the police station. This is the same district that elected ousted Prime Minister Mykola Azarov's son, Alexei, to parliament in 2012.  A group of 150 people supporting the armed militants gathered around the police station. Many shouted "Donbass is Russia" and "Sloviansk is a Russian city."

They were hostile to journalists present, telling them to "Go back to Kyiv" and "You have no business here." They also began to fortify the perimeter of the police station with sandbags and tires, stealing a page from the EuroMaidan Revolution tactics that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22. 

Investigative journalist Oleksiy Matsuka, an editor of Novosti Donbassa in Donetsk, reported that his car was set on fire by an arsonist overnight.

The gunmen at the Sloviansk police station also forced two journalists from Echo Moskvy radio station inside the building. The station is known as one of the last independent news outlets in Russia.

Local residents look on as an armed pro-Russian activist guards a police station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk after it was seized by a few dozen gunmen on April 12, 2014. A few dozen gunmen seized a police station in Ukraine's restive eastern industrial heartland amid spreading protests in favour of the heavily Russified region joining Kremlin rule. The attack and a failed assault on the prosecutor's office in the local capital Donetsk underscored the volatility of a crisis that EU and US diplomats hope to deescalate when they gather their Moscow and Kiev counterparts for four-way peace talks in Geneva on Thursday. AFP PHOTO / ANATOLIY STEPANOV

While Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has vowed to repel the raids with special forces, no Ukrainian police were in sight on the scene in Sloviansk. Avakov's April 11 deadline for militant to vacate government buildings or face police raids passed without incident or action. Pro-Russian separatists also hold the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) building in Luhansk and the government regional center in Donetsk. They seized the buildings on April 6.

Still, the Interior Ministry is vowing that a tough response is coming, although militants holding the Luhansk SBU building claimed to Kyiv Post journalists that local police wouldn't participate in a race against them.

Here is a video of the armed takeover of the Sloviansk police station

"The Interior Ministry warns representatives of public organizations and political parties about the unacceptability of organizing civil unrest and radical manifestations in all Ukrainian regions," the ministry said on its Web site on Saturday. The ministry called on public and political organizations, citizens' groups and associations across the entire political spectrum: "Stop bringing militants onto the streets, stop calling for violence and aggression, stop provoking clashes! The Interior Ministry will give a tough response to manifestations of deliberate destabilization, public order violations and mass disturbances across Ukraine, especially in the regions where special operations are under way to settle the situation and suppress manifestations of separatism: the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions. Anyone violating the law will be arrested regardless of their declared slogans and party allegiance and have their measure of responsibility established by a court," the statement said.

Police are taking measures to resolve the situation in Sloviansk, and the local police chief is holding talks with armed men who seized the building of the district police department, Ukrainian First Deputy Interior Minister Volodymyr Yevdokymov told Interfax-Ukraine news service.

Policemen guard a regional Ukrainian prosecutor's office in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on April 12, 2014. The separatists attempted to seize the prosecutors office. Gunmen have taken over a police station in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Kremlin militants are already holding state buildings in several cities, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Saturday. "Armed men in camouflage fatigues have taken the police station in Slavyansk," Avakov wrote on his Facebook page, adding that "the reaction will be very strong." He did not provide any other details. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY

Kyiv Post editor Mark Rachkevych can be reached at rachkevych@kyivpost.com

Editor’s Note: This article has been produced with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.

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