ODESSA, Ukraine, (Reuters) – Pro-Russian militants stormed a Ukrainian police station in Odessa yesterday and freed nearly 70 fellow activists as the country’s leaders lamented a police force they said was widely undermined by graft or collaboration with separatists.
Militants chanted “We will not forgive!” and “Russia!” as they smashed windows and broke down the gate at the compound two days after over 40 pro-Russian activists died in a blaze at a building they had occupied after clashes with pro-Kiev groups.
Odessa police said 67 activists were allowed to walk free.
Some officers were offered the black and orange St. George’s ribbon, a Russian military insignia that has become a symbol of the revolt, and were cheered by the crowd of several hundred.
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, speaking in the Black Sea port, was pointedly critical of the Odessa police: “If the law enforcement system in Odessa had worked not exclusively on the ‘Seventh Kilometre’ and had protected people, then these terrorist organisations would have been foiled,” he said.
The Seventh Kilometre is an open market on the edge of Odessa, associated in the popular consciousness with the corruption and black market business that have blighted Ukraine’s 23 years of post-Soviet independence.
Addressing hundreds of supporters of the Kiev authorities who gathered near the site of the blaze late on Sunday, newly appointed police chief Ivan Katerinchuk promised to bring those behind Friday’s deaths to justice, whatever their allegiance: “Like you, I want to restore law and order to Ukraine,” he said.
Friday’s clashes were the deadliest since Moscow-oriented president Viktor Yanukovich was forced to flee in February and pro-Russian militants launched uprisings in the industrial east. They also marked the first serious disorder far to the west of those eastern areas, heralding possible trouble for Kiev.
Friday’s deaths occurred after running clashes, involving petrol bombs and gunfire, between supporters and opponents of Moscow on the streets of Odessa, where the majority of people speak Russian. The pro-Russian activists were trapped in a building as it burned down.