DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Police have cleared the city hall in a southeastern Ukrainian city of the pro-Russia protesters who had been occupying it for over a week, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Thursday as government forces appeared to be resuming operations in the east. Local police officials and protesters, however, presented quite another picture of what happened in the city of Mariupol.
Pro-Russia protesters and masked gunmen have been occupying government buildings across eastern Ukraine for nearly two weeks and refusing to recognize Ukraine’s fledging government.
Avakov wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday that the Mariupol city hall “has been freed to resume work,” but did not describe the action.
However, Yulia Lasazan, a spokeswoman for Mariupol’s police department, told The Associated Press that about 30 masked men armed with baseball bats stormed the building in the early hours on Thursday and started beating the protesters. It was not clear why the protesters, some of whom were believed to be armed, did not offer resistance but called the police instead.
Five people were taken to a hospital, Lasazan said.
Lasazan said the police were controlling the perimeter and were negotiating with the remaining protesters to leave the building.
Elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, signs could be seen Thursday morning that government orders to resume military operations were taking effect, two days after Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, gave the order.
At least 10 military and special police armored vehicles were parked on the road just to the north of Slovyansk, a city 160 kilometers (100 miles) west of the Russian border that has emerged as the focus of the armed insurgency. Two helicopters were also spotted circling over the area. Troops ordered residents in the surrounding area to keep away.
Near the town of Makatikha, about 20 kilometers north of Slovyansk, pro-Russian militia at checkpoints set fire to barricades of car tires in an apparent attempt to reduce visibility from the air. An Associated Press reporter observed about two dozen militiamen manning checkpoints along the road earlier in the day.
No gunfire had been heard by late morning.
Ukraine is going through its biggest political crisis since the fall of Soviet Union, set off by months-long anti-government protests and President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight to Russia.
Yanukovych’s ouster sparked wide anger in his support base in Ukraine’s east. The insurgents, who claim Ukraine’s post-Yanukovych government consists of nationalists who will suppress the east’s large Russian-speaking population, are demanding regional autonomy or even annexation by Russia.
Ukraine and Russia reached a deal in Geneva last week to defuse the crisis, but pro-Russian insurgents in the east – and right-wing militants in Kiev – have defied calls for all sides to disarm and to vacate the buildings they are occupying.