Hundreds of pro-Russian demonstrators stormed police headquarters in Odessa on Sunday and won the release of 67 people detained after deadly clashes in the Ukrainian port city.
More than 40 people died in the riots two days earlier, some from gunshot wounds, but most in a horrific fire that tore through a trade union building.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who hinted strongly that he saw Moscow’s hand in the unrest spreading through southeastern Ukraine, visited Odessa on Sunday to try to defuse the mounting tensions.
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 calls the area historically Russian lands, has said he doesn’t want to send in troops but will if necessary.
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Yatsenyuk said police were being investigated for their failure to maintain order and 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 in the day, hundreds of pro-Russian demonstrators gathered in front of the scorched trade union building to honour those who died in Friday’s blaze. Some draped a large Russian tricolor flag on the face of the building.
By mid-afternoon, a group of several hundred people marched to the 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 after some of them managed to break into an inner courtyard, police yielded to the crowd’s demands and released the prisoners.
As detainees emerged from the police station, the crowd cheered. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that 67 activists had been released.
Yatsenyuk’s visit 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 “antiterrorist operation’’ was being executed in the eastern city of Kramatorsk.