ODESSA/SLAVIANSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – At least 42 people were killed in a street battle between supporters and opponents of Russia in southern Ukraine that ended with dozens of pro-Russian protesters incinerated in a burning bulding, bringing the country closer to war.
Pro-Russian rebels in the east freed seven European military observers yesterday after holding them hostage for eight days, while Kiev pressed on with its biggest military operation so far to reclaim rebel-held territory in the area.
The riot in the Black Sea port of Odessa, ending in a deadly blaze in a besieged trade union building, was by far the worst incident in Ukraine since a February uprising that ended with a pro-Russian president fleeing the country.
A couple of hundred pro-Russian protesters in the eastern city of Donetsk stormed the governor’s business premises and the state security headquarters, ransacking files and smashing windows. The attack reflected growing disorder in the area, targeting as it did a security building that had already been brought under rebel control.
“This is for yesterday!” said Tatiana Kamniva outside the governor’s office. “They’re monsters, worse than monsters.”
The Odessa clashes spread the violence from the eastern separatist heartland to an area far from the Russian frontier, raising the prospect of unrest sweeping more broadly across a country of around 45 million people the size of France.
The Kremlin, which has massed tens of thousands of soldiers on Ukraine’s eastern border and proclaims the right to invade to protect Russian speakers, said the government in Kiev and its Western backers were responsible for the deaths.
Kiev said the violence was provoked by foreign demonstrators sent in from Transdniestria, a nearby breakaway pro-Russian region of Moldova where Moscow has a military garrison. It said most of the dead who had been identified so far were from there.
Yesterday morning, people placed flowers near the burnt-out doors of the trade union building, lighting candles and putting up the yellow, white and red flag of the city. About 2,000 pro-Russian protesters outside the burnt-out building chanted “Odessa is a Russian city”.
Events took a violent turn on Friday when a column of soccer supporters, chanting support for Ukraine’s leaders, clashed with men in black, some firing pistols. Television pictures showed police caught between the two sides.
Clashes then spread along the streets until rebels moved into a large trade union building. Petrol bombs were thrown and shots were heard though the exact sequence and detail of events remained unclear yesterday.
Oleg Konstantinov, a journalist covering the events for a local Internet site, said bullets had flown in the melee before the blaze: “I was hit in the arm, then I started crawling, and then got hit in the back and leg.”
The Odessa bloodshed came on the same day that Kiev launched its biggest push yet to reassert its control over separatist areas in the east, hundreds of kilometres away, where armed pro-Russian rebels have proclaimed a “People’s Republic of Donetsk”.