Ukrainian special forces exchanged gunfire with a pro-Russia militia in an eastern city on Sunday, killing one security officer and wounding five others, the interior minister said. It was the first reported gunbattle in east Ukraine, where armed pro-Russia men have seized a number of law enforcement buildings in recent days.
Arsen Avakov said in a Facebook post that a Security Service officer was killed in Slovyansk, where the police station and local Security Service office were seized a day earlier by camouflaged armed men. He also reported an unclear number of casualties among the militia.
An Associated Press reporter on the ground didn’t see any sign of violence when he arrived on Sunday.
The unrest in Slovyansk and the nearby major industrial city Donetsk were the latest shows of spiraling anger in eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population and was also the support base for Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president ousted in February following months of protests in Kiev, the capital. Ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s east widely fear that the new pro-Western Ukrainian government will suppress them.
Avakov has described the unrest as “Russian aggression.”
In an earlier post, he said the men who seized the buildings in Slovyansk had opened fire on Ukrainian special forces sent to the city Sunday. He called on residents to remain calm and stay at home.
An Associated Press reporter saw no signs of any shots fired at the police station, which was surrounded by a reinforced line of barricades. Unlike on Saturday, the men patrolling the barricades were largely unarmed. One of the guards who asked not to be identified denied reports of fighting at the police station.
Armed camouflaged men were guarding a checkpoint at the main entrance into the city.
In a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “expressed strong concern” that the attacks “were orchestrated and synchronized, similar to previous attacks in eastern Ukraine and Crimea,” according the State Department. Kerry “made clear that if Russia didn’t take steps to de-escalate in eastern Ukraine and move its troops back from Ukraine’s border, there would be additional consequences,” the department said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry debunked Kerry’s claims, while Lavrov blamed the crisis in Ukraine on the failure of the Ukrainian government “to take into account the legitimate needs and interests of the Russian and Russian-speaking population,” the ministry said. Lavrov also warned that Russia may pull out of next week’s Ukraine summit if Kiev uses force against “residents of the southeast who were driven to despair.”
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who is in Ukraine this weekend, condemned the unrest in a Twitter post as “a coordinated armed action to seize control over key parts continued…