At least 42 people were killed in street battles between supporters and opponents of Russia in southern Ukraine that ended with pro-Russian protesters trapped in a flaming building, bringing the country closer to war.
Pro-Russian rebels in the east freed seven European military observers Saturday after holding them hostage for eight days, while Kiev pressed on with a military campaign to reclaim rebel-held territory in the area. The riot in the Black Sea port of Odessa that ended in a deadly blaze in a trade union building was by far the worst incident in Ukraine since a February uprising that ended with a pro-Russian president fleeing the country.
It also spread the violence from the eastern separatist heartland to an area far from the Russian frontier, raising the prospect of unrest sweeping more broadly across a country of around 45 million people the size of France. On Saturday morning, people placed flowers near the burnt-out doors of the trade union building, lighting candles and putting up the yellow, white and red flag of the city. The burnt remains of a tented camp of pro-Russian demonstrators nearby had been swept away. People spoke of their horror at what happened.
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At hospitals, residents queued up to offer blood and others went to find out what medicine was needed so they could go out to buy it.
Oleg Konstantinov, a journalist covering the events for a local Internet site, said bullets had flown in the melee before the blaze: “I was hit in the arm, then I started crawling, and then got hit in the back and leg.”
The Kremlin, which has massed tens of thousands of soldiers on the eastern Ukrainian frontier and proclaims the right to invade to protect Russian speakers, said the provisional government in Kiev and its Western backers were responsible. The Odessa bloodshed came on the same day as the biggest push yet by the government in Kiev to reassert its control over separatist areas in the east, hundreds of kilometres away, where heavily armed pro-Russian rebels have proclaimed a “People’s Republic of Donetsk”. Overnight, Russian media reported fighting near Kramatorsk, citing hospital sources as saying one had been killed and nine wounded. Separatists said three fighters and two civilians were killed in the Ukrainian advance on the town.
The military operation in the east was overshadowed by the violence in Odessa, a multi-ethnic port city that has seen some support for separatists but nothing like the riots that erupted Friday.
Police said four people were killed, at least three shot dead, and dozens wounded in unprecedented running battles between people backing Kiev and pro-Russian activists. The clashes ended with separatists holed up in a the building that caught fire. Television footage showed petrol bombs exploding against its walls.
At least 37 people died in the blaze. On Saturday police raised the overall death toll in the city to 42. It was easily the biggest death toll since about 100 people were killed in Kiev protests that toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February.