Deadly gun battles have broken out in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk as separatists seize government buildings in at least one other city in the region. Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said one officer was killed and another five injured as security forces attempted to retake occupied security buildings. In a statement on his Facebook page Mr Avakov said there was also an “unidentifiable number” of casualties among the protesters, who are being supported by around 1,000 civilians. Russia’s RIA news agency confirmed at least one activist had been killed in the raid.
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Separatists are currently guarding barricades outside the occupied buildings and have set up checkpoints on roads leading into the Slavyansk. Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has mobilised the army and said a “full-scale anti-terrorist operation” was being launched. He offered an amnesty to protesters who surrendered their weapons by Monday morning. He accused Russia of being behind the unrest to justify expanding its military control beyond Crimea, but this is rejected by the Kremlin.
The US has threatened to bolster existing sanctions against Moscow if the trouble continues. It also blames the country for inflaming tensions in eastern Ukraine. “I think we’ve seen that the sanctions can bite,” said Samantha Power, America’s ambassador to the UN. “If actions like the kind we’ve seen over the last few days continue, you’re going to see a ramping up of those sanctions.”
Media, who are based in Slavyansk, said the centre remains relatively calm and reports of fatalities were thought to be linked to clashes well into the outskirts. It’s reported that civilians, some of them elderly, have been stood at one checkpoint since late last night to act as “human shields” to protect pro-Russian protesters from Ukrainian security forces. Elsewhere local media is reporting that protesters have seized the mayor’s office in the eastern city of Mariupol. One report said activists entered the building unhindered after around 1,000 people took part in an independence rally. It said barricades were erected around the office and the Ukrainian flag removed. If confirmed that would bring the total number of cities where administrative buildings are under the control of separatists to five.
Masked men, wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms and carrying special-issue assault rifles, seized the local police headquarters in Slavyansk on Saturday. They later took control of the security service building in the city, which lies some 90 miles from the Russian border. Also on Saturday gunmen seized a police station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk following a shoot-out. Other groups began their occupation of security buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk last weekend. Protesters in the region, which has a large ethnic Russian population, hope to follow in the footsteps of the Crimean Peninsula and force a referendum on joining the Russian Federation.
The area was a strong bastion of support for ousted President and Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych and many residents fear they will be suppressed under the new Western-friendly interim government in Kiev. Moscow has also warned any Ukrainian military aggression against ethnic Russians will derail top-level talks on the crisis scheduled to take place in Geneva next week. Western leaders have expressed concern that the latest unrest strongly echoes the events which led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea last month following an overwhelmingly-backed referendum. The United States has pledged its “strong support” for Ukraine’s new government and urged Russia to de-escalate tensions. It has also called on Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s eastern border, where Nato claims up 40,000 soldiers are now stationed. The EU and US have imposed a number of sanctions on Russian and Ukrainian individuals, but are yet to directly target Russia’s economy