SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine is launching a “large-scale anti-terrorist operation” to resist attacks by armed pro-Russian forces, Ukraine’s President Oleksandr Turchynov said on Sunday in a televised address.
The authorities in Kiev will use the army in order to prevent Russian troops from moving in as they did in Crimea, Turchynov said as he pledged amnesty to anyone laying down arms by Monday morning.
“The Security Council has made a decision to begin a large-scale anti-terrorist operation with participation of army forces,” he said. “We’re not going to allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in Ukraine’s east.”
Ukrainian special forces exchanged gunfire with a pro-Russia militia in an eastern city Sunday morning, with at least one security officer killed and five others wounded. It was the first reported gunbattle in eastern Ukraine, where armed pro-Russia men have seized a number of government buildings in recent days.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has described such attacks as “Russian aggression.” He said in a Facebook post Sunday that special forces of up to 12,000 people will be drawn from volunteers in their local areas in a bid to resist attacks from pro-Russian forces.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry was quick to dismiss Turchynov’s decree as “criminal” and accused Ukrainian officials of using radical neo-Nazi forces.
Turchynov said a Security Service captain was killed and two colonels wounded in a gunbattle outside Slovyansk, where the police station and the Security Service office were seized a day earlier.
An Associated Press reporter found a bullet-ridden SUV on the side of the road and a pool of blood on the passenger seat where the gunbattle was supposed to have taken place.
Vladimir Kolodchenko, a lawmaker from the area who witnessed the attack, said a car with four gunmen pulled up on the road in a wooden area outside Slovyansk and opened fire on Ukrainian soldiers who were standing beside their vehicles. Both attackers and the Ukrainian servicemen left soon after the shooting.
Unrest has spread to several municipalities in eastern Ukraine, including the major industrial city of Donetsk, which has a large Russian-speaking population.
Donetsk was also the support base for Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president ousted in February following months of protests in Kiev, the capital, that were ignited by his decision to back away from closer relations with the European Union and turn toward Russia. Ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s east widely fear that the new pro-Western Ukrainian government will suppress them.
The regional administration in Donetsk issued a statement, confirming one dead and saying nine were wounded. It did not identify them, but said one person was shot outside Slovyansk.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement late Sunday afternoon accusing “the Russian special service and saboteurs” of fomenting unrest and pledging to present “concrete evidence” of Russia’s involvement at the Ukraine summit in Geneva on Thursday.
Ukrainian lawmaker Oleh Lyashko said Sunday afternoon that Ukrainian forces in Slovyansk had managed to take control of the city hall, the Security Service’s branch and the police station in Slovyansk. This could not be immediately verified.
Earlier in the day, the police station was surrounded by a reinforced line of barricades, but unlike on Saturday the men patrolling were largely unarmed. On the main road into the city, a checkpoint was guarded by armed camouflaged men.
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.
The Russian Foreign Ministry denied Kerry’s claims, while Lavrov blamed the crisis in Ukraine on the failure of the Kiev 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 the Ukraine summit if Kiev uses force against “residents of the southeast who were driven to despair.”
Two rival rallies in another regional capital in eastern Ukraine, Kharkiv, turned violent. At the end of both rallies, a group of pro-Russian protesters followed several pro-Ukrainian activists, beating them with bats and sticks, Interfax Ukraine reported. A video on Espresso TV showed one activist with blood on his head and hands waiting for paramedics on the steps of the underground passage. Several men and women came up to him and started kicking him.
Interfax quoted Kharkiv authorities saying that 10 people were injured at the rallies.
In Slovyansk, the mayor said Saturday the men who seized the police station were demanding a referendum on autonomy and possible annexation by Russia. Protesters in other eastern cities have made similar demands after a referendum in Crimea last month in which voters opted to split off from Ukraine, leading to annexation by Russia.
The interior minister also reported an attack on a police station in the nearby city of Kramatorsk. A video from local news website Kramatorsk.info showed a group of camouflaged men armed with automatic weapons storming the building. The news website also reported that supporters of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic have occupied the administration building, built a barricade with tires around it and put a Russian flag nearby.
Regional news website OstroV said three key administrative buildings have been seized in another city in the area, Enakiyeve. In Mariupol, a city south of Donetsk on the Azov Sea and just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from the Russian border, the city hall was seized by armed masked men. Local news website 0629.com.ua said 1,000 protesters were building a barricade around it while unknown armed men raised the Russian flag over the building.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Lynn Berry in Moscow and Thomas Strong in Washington contributed to this report.