MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Local patrols by steelworkers have forced pro-Russia insurgents to pull out of the government buildings they had seized in this city, a setback to anti-Kiev forces that have established footholds in eastern Ukraine.
Mariupol is the second-largest city in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region – one of two regions that declared independence Monday from the central government in Kiev. Citizen patrols began here earlier this week as Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, urged steelworkers at his factories to help police restore order.
In a report Friday, the United Nations raised concerns about increasing human rights abuses in eastern Ukraine as armed groups took advantage of the breakdown in law and order.
Akhmetov’s company, Metinvest, agreed with steel plant directors, police and community leaders Thursday to help improve security in the city and get insurgents to vacate the buildings they had seized. A representative of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, which had declared independence, was also a party to the deal.
Metinvest has two steel plants Mariupol, a city of half a million people. The port and industrial center lies on the main road between Russia and Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Moscow in March. The city saw heavy fighting in the past weeks, including a shoot-out outside a police station that left one policeman and several insurgents dead. Without the city, Ukraine would lose a chunk of its coastline on the Sea of Azov, which links to the Black Sea.
The Associated Press journalists did not see any insurgents Friday morning in the city.
German Mandrakov, once the commander of Mariupol’s occupied government building, told The Associated Press on Friday that his associates fled while he was “forced” to leave the building they had controlled for weeks.
“Everyone ran away,” he said, using a vulgar Russian word for cowards. “Someone is trying to sow discord among us, someone has signed something, but we will continue our fight.”
Several dozen Metinvest workers in overalls and helmets cleared out barricades of rubbish and tires outside the Mariupol government building Friday. Trucks carried it away and by midday, the barricades were nearly gone.
“(Locals are) tired of war and chaos. Burglaries and marauding have to stop,” said Viktor Gusak, one of the Metinvest employees cleaning the street.
A few hundred meters (yards) away, three men sat in the park cooking soup. One of them, unemployed Serhiy Atroshchenko, told the AP they were all that was left of Mariupol’s pro-Russian separatist force.
“We were duped,” Atroshchenko said. “Akhmetov used to keep his eyes closed (to what was happening), but now he decided to make a deal with Kiev authorities.”
Atroshchenko said other separatists fled and only he and his two friends -the “men of ideas,” he claimed – were left “to fight till the end.” None of them was armed.
While groups of armed men were seizing one town hall after another in eastern Ukraine, a region widely believed to be Akhmetov’s turf, the billionaire industrialist kept mum, attracting angry comments across the country.
Among the graffiti aimed at Akhmetov in Kiev was this: “Want to make money? First, make some peace!”
On Wednesday, Akhmetov broke his silence to call for Donetsk to remain part of Ukraine, arguing that independence or absorption into Russia would be an economic catastrophe.
Since President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster in February, Ukraine’s new leadership has reached out to oligarchs for help – appointing them as governors in eastern regions where loyalties to Moscow were strong.
Ihor Kolomoisky, a metals, banking and media tycoon who was appointed governor of his native region of Dnipropetrovsk, was among those praised for preserving order. Others like industrialist Serhiy Taruta, governor of the Donetsk region, seemed helpless as district after district fell into the insurgents’ hands.
In Mariupol, the first major citizen patrol sponsored by Akhmetov’s Metinvest was held Thursday, police spokeswoman Yulia Lafazan said, adding there were now 100 groups of men consisting of two policemen and six to eight steelworkers patrolling Mariupol.
Lafazan credited the patrols for a “drastic improvement” in the city’s crime rate.
Burglaries and carjackings became the norm after the pro-Russia insurgents asserted themselves earlier this month, bringing in a wave of marauding, she said.
Associated Press journalists saw two steelworker patrols Friday afternoon. One consisted of two policemen and six workers patrolling a major avenue on foot; the other consisted of two policemen and three workers driving around town.
Steelworker Alexander Zhigula said the volunteered to help because “someone has to bring order back to the streets.”
“The city is sick of crime and chaos,” he said. “People can finally see that they’ve got someone to rely on.”
Valentyna Tochilina, a 47-year-old resident, said she was relieved to see the insurgents disappear from the streets.
“For the first time (in weeks), I can go out shopping without fear,” she said.
In other areas in eastern Ukraine, however, the pro-Russia insurgents were fortifying their territories.
Outside the strategic city of Slovyansk, an insurgent stronghold for more than a month now, armed separatists installed a new checkpoint on the eastern approaches to the city. That checkpoint blocks a major highway that links Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city – with the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don across the border.
Associated Press journalists saw several dozen heavily armed men fortifying the new checkpoint with concrete slabs, helped by residents.
In Kiev, Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov on Friday urged residents of the eastern regions to stop helping the separatists and support the central government.
“You’ve got to support the anti-terrorist operation so that we could defeat terrorists and separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk regions together,” he told the parliament. “The actions of the terrorists are threatening lives and welfare of the people.”
Kiev on Wednesday launched the first round of European-brokered talks to solve the crisis, but it brought little visible results since the insurgents haven’t been invited. The insurgents in their turn insisted that they will agree to the negotiations only if they focus on the withdrawal of the Ukrainian troops and the recognition of their independent state.
The next round of talks will be held in the eastern city of Kharkiv on Saturday, which has not seen major insurgent activity, the government announced late Friday.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Alexander Zemlianichenko in Slovyansk and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.