Anti-government demonstrators in a major eastern Ukraine city stormed and took over the regional prosecutor’s office Thursday as evidence mounts that authorities are losing control over swaths of the country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, said Ukraine should withdraw its troops from the east and south, where insurgents seeking either greater autonomy or annexation by Russia have seized government facilities in more than a dozen cities.
Moscow has consistently denounced Ukrainian security forces’ largely ineffectual “anti-terrorist” operation against the eastern insurgents and warned they shouldn’t commit violence against civilians. In a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin said the removal of military units from the south and east was a “main thing,” but it was unclear if that could be construed as an outright demand.
A row of several dozen riot police standing guard at the regional prosecutor’s office fired stun grenades and tear gas when some at the front of the crowd of several hundred people attempted to force their way into the building in Donetsk.
As the confrontation escalated, some in the crowd threw rocks and managed to tear shields off the police. An Associated Press reporter saw a handful of officers being dragged away and beaten by members of the crowd.
Hundreds of onlookers accompanying the protesters, who included several crying children, shouted slogans and hurled abuse.
Upon occupying the building, protesters discarded the Ukrainian flag and replaced it with that of the Donetsk People’s Republic _ a movement that seeks either greater autonomy from the central government, or independence and possible annexation by Russia.
Donetsk is the heartland of support for Russia-friendly former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February after months of protests in the capital. Opponents of the government that succeeded him have seized buildings in about a dozen cities and towns in eastern Ukraine.
The swift takeover of the building appears to lend weight to an admission by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov this week that police and security forces were “helpless” to stifle unrest in the country’s east.
On Wednesday, insurgents took control of the customs service building in Donetsk and city hall in Alchevsk, an industrial center of about 110,000 people, adding to the scores of buildings taken by the separatists over the past month in the east, where a dozen cities are now in the hands of the separatists.
Turchynov has twice proclaimed “anti-terrorist” operations to regain control of the east, but to little effect.
Unlike many recent seizures of the government offices, the assault on the prosecutor’s appear to have been spearheaded by people armed with little more than sticks. At least one young man was seen by an Associated Press reporter with a handgun tucked into his trousers, however. At least one firebomb was thrown at the building during the clash.
The armed element of the insurgency is focused on Slovyansk, a city 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Donetsk in which seven European observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe remain held by pro-Russia gunmen.
Merkel on Thursday again called Putin and asked for his assistance in freeing the group. A spokeswoman for Merkel said the focus of the phone conversation between the two leaders was on the “the continuing hostage-taking of the OSCE observers by separatists in eastern Ukraine.” Spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz said in a statement that Merkel “appealed to the president to use his influence” in resolving the situation.
Russia denies allegations from Kiev and the West that it is influencing or fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin also confirmed the conversation and said Putin stressed that “the main thing was for Ukraine to withdraw its troops from southeastern Ukraine, stop the violence and quickly start a broad national dialogue on constitutional reform.”
On Wednesday, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it had detained the military attache at Russia’s embassy on suspicion of spying and would remove him from the country. Russia has made no public comment on the issue.