Donetsk: Pro-Russian protesters have seized state buildings in three east Ukrainian cities, triggering accusations from the government in Kiev that Russian President Vladimir Putin was orchestrating separatist disorder.
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Pro-Russian groups seize Ukraine offices
RAW VISION: Pro-Russian demonstrators in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk seize the regional government building in defiance of Kiev's government.
The protesters stormed regional government buildings in the industrial hub of Donetsk and security service offices in nearby Luhansk, waving Russian flags and demanding a Crimea-style referendum on joining Russia. Protesters also later seized the regional administrative building in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, Interfax news agency reported. All three cities lie close to Ukraine's border with Russia.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov vowed to restore order in eastern Ukraine without using violence and accused Ukraine's ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, whose political base was in Donetsk, of conspiring with Mr Putin to fuel tensions.
"Putin and Yanukovych ordered and paid for the latest wave of separatist disorder in the east of the country. The people who have gathered are not many but they are very aggressive," Mr Avakov said on his Facebook page. "The situation will come back under control without bloodshed. That is the order to law enforcement officers, it's true. But the truth is that no one will peacefully tolerate the lawlessness of provocateurs."
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov called an emergency meeting of security chiefs in Kiev and took personal control of the situation, the parliamentary press service said.
Mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine has had a sharp rise in tensions since Mr Yanukovych's overthrow in February and the advent of an interim government in Kiev that backs closer ties with the European Union.
Russia has branded the new government illegitimate and has annexed Ukraine's Crimea region, citing threats to its Russian-speaking majority – a move that has sparked the biggest stand-off between Moscow and the West since the end of the Cold War.
Several eastern regions now want to stage referendums on joining Kremlin rule when Ukraine holds snap presidential polls on May 25.
About 1500 people protested in Donetsk on Sunday before breaking into the regional administration building, where they hung a Russian flag from a second-floor balcony, a witness said. Protesters outside cheered and chanted "Russia! Russia!". They threw firecrackers at police and ripped away several of their shields before raising the Russian flag above the 11-storey building, Agence-France Presse reported. Some in the bustling city of 1 million chanted "give us a referendum" and "NATO go home".
In the Luhansk protest, Ukrainian television said three people had been injured. Police could not confirm the report.
Talking to the crowd over a loudspeaker, protest leaders in Donetsk said they wanted regional lawmakers to convene an emergency meeting to discuss a vote on joining Russia like the one in Ukraine's Crimea region that led to its annexation.
No one will peacefully tolerate the lawlessness of provocateurs.
"Deputies of the regional council should convene before midnight and take the decision to carry out a referendum," one of the protest leaders said, without identifying himself.
An internet portal streamed footage from the seized building, showing people entering and exiting freely. Soviet-era music was being played over loudspeakers outside.
The building houses the offices of Serhiy Taruta, a steel baron recently appointed by the interim government in Kiev as governor of a region with close economic and historical ties to Russia.
"Around 1000 people took part [in the storming of the building], mostly young people with their faces covered," said Ihor Dyomin, a spokesman for Donetsk local police. "Around 100 people are now inside the building and are barricading the building."
In Luhansk, Reuters television showed images of hundreds of people outside the state security services building and a policeman in riot armour being carried away on a stretcher.
Ukrainian television said the Luhansk protesters were demanding the release of people detained by security services in recent days as well as a referendum on joining Russia.
"We don't want to join the EU, we don't want to join NATO, we want our children to live in peace," an unnamed woman told Ukraine's Channel 5 in Luhansk.
On Saturday, Ukraine's state security services said they had detained 15 people in Luhansk suspected of planning to overthrow the authorities and had confiscated hundreds of rifles, grenades and petrol bombs.