Pro-Russia separatists take hold as cease-fire called off
DONETSK, Ukraine — The Interior Ministry headquarters in eastern Ukraine's largest city fell to pro-Russia separatists on Tuesday during a five-hour gunbattle that erupted hours after the Ukrainian president said rebels were not serious about peace and ended a cease-fire.
The shaky cease-fire had given European leaders 10 days to search for a peaceful settlement, and its end raised the prospect that fighting could flare with new intensity in a conflict that has killed more than 400 people since April.
In the clashes, rebels fought for more ground, and badly trained and disorganized government troops seemed incapable of crushing the mutiny.
President Petro Poroshenko had called for a unilateral cease-fire to try to persuade the rebels to lay down their weapons and hold peace talks. Some of the rebels signed onto the cease-fire as tentative negotiations began, but each side accused the other of repeated violations.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that substantive talks with representatives in eastern Ukraine had failed to start in earnest and that the cease-fire announced by Poroshenko amounted to an ultimatum to the rebels to disarm.
The Russian leader denounced the Western threat of sanctions as blackmail, adding that Moscow wouldn't accept “ultimatums and mentor's tone.”
Europe must not allow “any unconstitutional coups and interference into the domestic affairs of sovereign states” and should steer clear of “inciting radical and neo-Nazi forces” to avoid destabilization, Putin said.
Russia has cast February's ouster of Ukraine's former pro-Moscow president after protests as a coup conducted by radical nationalists and neo-Nazis.
In Donetsk, the capital of Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, many streets were deserted, and gunfire filled the air as rebels besieged the headquarters of the regional Interior Ministry. The rebels eventually captured the compound, leaving the body of a plainclothes police officer outside.
In Kiev, the interior minister said Ukrainian forces had repelled the rebel attack in Donetsk, but an AP journalist on the ground saw that clearly was not the case.
Panicked residents fled the fighting.
“I was driving, and some people appeared with automatic weapons,” said a man named Vitaly, who said he was too fearful to give his last name. “They put me and my girlfriend on the ground and then they said: ‘Run away from here!'
“I don't know who is fighting whom. We are standing here. We are afraid and shaking.”
It was not clear what prompted the rebel attack on the Interior Ministry building, which houses regional police, who have peacefully coexisted with the rebels even though they still officially answer to the central government in Kiev.