With baseball bats, pro-Russian activists seize government building in Ukraine's troubled east
LUHANSK, Ukraine — Protesters demanding more power for Ukraine's regions stormed the government building in Luhansk with baseball bats on Tuesday, seizing control of a key site in one of the largest cities in Ukraine's troubled east.
The move further raises tensions in the east, where pro-Russia militias have seized city halls, police stations and other government buildings in at least 10 cities and towns.
In Slovyansk, rebels have been holding seven European military observers since Friday. Russian President Vladimir Putin said late on Tuesday that he hoped they will be released soon.
The demonstrators who overran the building in Luhansk are seeking — at the very least — a referendum on granting greater authority to Ukraine's regions.
Eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population, was the heartland of support for Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted president who fled to Russia in February. The government that replaced him in Kiev has resisted those demands so far, fearing they could lead to a breakup of the country or mean that more regions could join Russia, as Crimea did.
The storming occurred as 1,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the building. About 150 people, some masked and wielding baseball bats, broke out of the crowd and charged into the building, meeting no resistance. Later, protesters formed a corridor to allow police inside the building to leave.
Luhansk, a city of about 450,000, is just 15 miles west of the border with Russia.
Regional autonomy is a core issue in the unrest in eastern Ukraine, where insurgents fear that the government that took power after Yanukovych fled will suppress the Russian-speaking population.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry accused Moscow of accelerating the crisis in Ukraine instead of sticking to an agreement to ratchet back tensions, and said NATO partners should step up efforts to lessen Europe's energy dependence on Russian oil.