SLOVYANSK: 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.”
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.”