SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Several dozen armed men seized a police station in a city in eastern Ukraine and hoisted the Russian flag above the building Saturday as tensions in the country’s Russian-speaking regions intensify.
The city of Slovyansk is about 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of the regional center, Donetsk, where pro-Russian protesters have occupied a government building for nearly a week.
About 20 men in balaclavas armed with automatic rifles and pistols were guarding the entrance to the police station in the city of about 120,000 people, and another 20 were believed to be inside. They wore St. George’s ribbons, which have become a symbol of pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine. The ribbons were originally associated with the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II.
Eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population, has seen waves of protests since Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in late February. The protesters allege that the authorities who took over are nationalists and “fascists” who aim to suppress the ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
The predominantly ethnic Russian region of Crimea voted in a referendum last month to split off from Ukraine and was subsequently annexed by Russia in moves that West has denounced as illegitimate.
A masked guard in Slovyansk, who gave his name only as Sergei, told The Associated Press they have “only one demand: a referendum and joining Russia.”
The man said they seized the building because they wanted to protect it from radical nationalists from western Ukraine and “the junta who seized power in Kiev.”
“We don’t want to be slaves of America and the West,” he said. “We want to live with Russia.”
The Interior Ministry said in a statement that the attackers’ goal was to seize arms from the police station. They said there were about 40 automatic rifles and 400 pistols as well as ammunition inside.
A video from the scene saw one man carrying a sniper rifle. An AP reporter saw another man loading the magazine of a pistol at the police station.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov pledged a “very tough response” to the seizure while local media reported special forces dispatched to the area.
Local sympathizers brought tires to the police station to start building barricades.
Gunshots rang out in the background in a video from the scene after an armed man shouted to a cameraman to stop recording. No casualties were immediately reported.
An Associated Press crew saw about 10 men wearing camouflage and carrying automatic rifles at the entrance to the town late Saturday afternoon. The men were building a barricade with tires.
The Kiev authorities and the United States have accused Russia of fomenting the unrest in the east and seeking to use it as a pretext for sending in troops. Russia has massed forces in areas near the Ukrainian border.
But Mayor Nelya Shtepa told the AP that she held talks with the protesters and said they were local residents, not Russians.
“They told me: `We don’t have anything against you,’ ” she said, adding that the men said they “want to be heard, want a dialogue with authorities in Kiev.”
Protesters, who have held the administration building in Donetsk since Sunday, initially called for a referendum on secession but later reduced the demand to a vote on autonomy within Ukraine with the possibility of holding another later on whether to join Russia.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Friday warned the Ukrainian government against using force against protesters, saying that such action would derail the talks on settling the crisis between the United States, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine set for next week, as well as any other diplomatic efforts. It lashed out at the U.S. warning to slap more sanctions on Russia in case of an escalation of the conflict, saying that “an escalation is only and exclusively possible if Kiev dares to do so, relying on massive support of the U.S. and the EU.”
Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Kiev.