Armed men seized official buildings in a city in eastern Ukraine on Saturday and hoisted the Russian flag, deepening a stand-off with Moscow which, Kiev warned, was dragging Europe into a “gas war” that could disrupt supplies across the continent.
At least 20 men armed with pistols and rifles took over the police station and a security services headquarters in Slaviansk, about 150 km from the border with Russia.
Officials said the men had seized hundreds of pistols from arsenals in the buildings. The militants replaced the Ukrainian flag on one of the buildings with the red, white and blue Russian flag.
On a road leading into Slaviansk, other members of the group, armed with automatic rifles, set up a roadblock and checked vehicles entering the city, a Reuters reporter said.
Ukraine’s Western-backed government warned of tough action if the militants did not lay down their weapons, but it was unclear if the local law enforcement agencies were taking orders from Kiev any more after the local police chief quit.
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Kostyantyn Pozhydayev came out to speak to pro-Russian protesters at his offices in the regional capital, Donetsk, and told them he was stepping down “in accordance with your demands”. Some of his officers left the building.
The protesters occupied the ground floor of the Donetsk police headquarters and a black and orange flag adopted by pro-Russian separatists flew over the building in place of the Ukrainian flag, a Reuters reporter said.
The occupations are a potential flashpoint because if protesters are killed or hurt by Ukrainian forces, that could prompt the Kremlin to intervene to protect the local Russian-speaking population, a repeat of the scenario in Crimea.
Russia and Ukraine have been in confrontation since protests in Kiev forced the Moscow-backed president from office, and the Kremlin sent troops into Crimea, the home of its Black Sea Fleet and a part of Russia until 1954.
Moscow denies any plan to send in forces or split Ukraine, but the Western-leaning authorities in Kiev believe Russia is trying to create a pretext to interfere again. NATO says Russian armed forces are massing on Ukraine’s eastern border, while Moscow says they are on normal manoeuvres.
Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting Ukrainian president, called an emergency meeting of the national security council for Saturday evening to discuss the unrest in the east.
Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, said he had spoken by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and demanded Moscow stop what he called “provocative actions” by its agents in eastern Ukraine.
Lavrov, in a statement issued by his ministry, said there were no Russian agents in the region and that it would be “unacceptable” if Ukrainian authorities were to order the storming of the buildings.