Ukraine crisis: Pro-Russia activists take Luhansk offices

The BBC's David Stern said it was the city's second building to be taken over

Pro-Russia activists have stormed several official buildings in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk.

They seized the regional government's headquarters and prosecutor's office before opening fire with automatic weapons at the main police station.

Interim President Olexander Turchynov criticised local police for their "inaction" and "criminal treachery".

The US accused Russia of seeking to "change the security landscape" of Eastern and Central Europe.

Analysis

The pro-Russian gunmen in Ukraine's east seem to be following a strategy of constant expansion and pressure on the Kiev government.

Hardly a day goes by without another incident. Just recently, official buildings in Kostyantynivka have been taken over, Western military monitors detained, peaceful demonstrators in Donetsk attacked, and now the regional administration building in Luhansk has been seized.

It is difficult to say what their ultimate goal is. Perhaps it is to keep government officials in Kiev on the defensive, forcing them to put out a number of fires at once, while others pop up throughout the region.

Or else it is simply to keep the situation unstable, in order to prevent the presidential election scheduled to take place on 25 May.

Or it could be just the opposite, as many in Kiev and throughout the country fear: to provoke the Ukrainians into a full crackdown, which would in turn spark a Russian invasion. The militants have called on Moscow to intervene on more than one occasion.

In a speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry told the Kremlin to "leave Ukraine in peace" and warned: "Nato territory is inviolable we will defend every single inch of it."

In other developments on Tuesday:

  • A conference in London heard allegations that Ukraine's ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and his associates may have stolen assets worth tens of billions of dollars
  • Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told BBC Russian that voting in next month's presidential election may not be able to take place in all regions because of the unrest
'No control'

Moscow has said it has no intention of invading eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia activists have seized government buildings in more than a dozen towns and cities.

Until now, only the local office of the State Security Service (SBU) in Luhansk, a city of 465,000 people less than 30km (20 miles) from the Russian border, had been targeted.

But on Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of people shouting "Russia, Russia" gathered outside the headquarters of the regional government to demand a referendum on greater autonomy.

Pro-Russia armed men take cover behind a car near the headquarters of the local police in Luhansk (29 April 2014) Pro-Russia activists reportedly opened fire at Luhansk's police headquarters to force officers to surrender
Pro-Russia activists in Luhansk (29 April 2014) Earlier, men armed with sticks and metal bars stormed the regional administration's headquarters
Pro-Russian activists climb into the regional government's headquarters in Luhansk (29 April 2014) A small group broke windows to gain access to the building, which was not protected
Pro-Russia activists inside the regional government's headquarters in Luhansk (29 April 2014) Once inside, they opened the building's main entrance to allow in demonstrators gathered outside
Pro-Russian activists confront interior ministry security personnel outside the regional government's headquarters in Luhansk (29 April 2014) Inside the courtyard, the activists found dozens of security personnel in riot gear
A pro-Russia activist throws flowers from a the regional administration's headquarters in Luhansk (29 April 2014) The Ukrainian flag was replaced by a Russian tricolour and the flag of Donetsk People's Republic

A group of men armed with sticks and metal bars broke into the building. They pulled down the Ukrainian flag flying from the roof and replaced it with a Russian tricolour and the flag of Donetsk People's Republic.

Crowds of pro-Russia activists then overran the building housing the prosecutor's office before attacking the headquarters of the interior ministry's police force.

Hours later, an AFP news agency journalist reported that officers had abandoned the police station and been taken away in buses, as an angry crowd shouted at them to "Go home".

Map of towns in Ukraine reporting major protests by pro-Russian separatists

Activists also went into a regional television station, but decided not to take it over after they were allowed to make a live broadcast.

Following the takeovers, President Turchynov demanded the dismissal of the police chiefs in Luhansk and the other eastern city of Donetsk.

"The overwhelming majority of law enforcement bodies in the east are incapable of fulfilling their duty to defend our citizens," he said.

Pro-Russia activists control much of the neighbouring Donetsk region.

Sanctions

Start Quote

The most significant effect of the sanctions so far has been on business confidence”

End Quote

Eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population, was a stronghold for former President Yanukovych before he was overthrown by protesters in February.

The interim government has rejected the pro-Russian activists' demands for greater autonomy, fearing they could lead to the break-up of the country or more regions being annexed by Russia, as happened with Crimea last month.

Pro-Russian activists continue to detain some 40 people, including seven military observers linked to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) seized last week.

On Tuesday evening, the self-styled "mayor" of the town of Sloviansk, where the observers are being held, said "good progress" had been made at talks with OSCE representatives.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov had earlier warned that they would only be released if the EU dropped its sanctions against separatist leaders.

Earlier, the EU published a fresh list of 15 individuals facing travel bans and asset freezes.

Sloviansk resident: "I think that it should end in a peaceful way"

It included the chief of the Russian General Staff, the head of Russian military intelligence, and a Russian deputy prime minister, as well as separatist leaders in Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk.

On Monday, the US announced sanctions against seven individuals and 17 companies it said were linked to President Putin's "inner circle".

President Putin warned that new sanctions might have an impact on the operations of Western companies in Russia.

"If this continues, we will of course have to think about how they work in the Russian Federation, including in key sectors of the Russian economy such as energy," he said, adding that there were "neither Russian instructors, nor special units, nor troops" in Ukraine.

US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the sanctions, first imposed by Washington and Brussels after Crimea was annexed, had so far caused "a quite substantial deterioration in Russia's already weak economy".

Name Position Sanctioned by
Putin's 'inner circle'

Gennady Timchenko

Founder of Gunvor (oil and energy market trading)

US

Arkady Rotenberg and Boris Rotenberg

Co-owners of SMP Bank and SGM Group

US

Yuri Kovalchuk

Largest single shareholder of Bank Rossiya

US

Igor Sechin

Head of Rosneft (petroleum company)

US

Government officials

Sergei Ivanov

Chief of staff for Presidential Executive Office

US

Oleg Belaventsev

Russian presidential envoy to Crimea

US and EU

Vladimir Yakunin

Chairman of Russian Railways

US

Igor Sergun

Director of GRU

US and EU

Valery Gerasimov

Chief of General Staff of Russian Armed Forces

EU

Vladimir Kozhin

Head of administration

US

Viktor Ivanov

Director of Federal Drug Control Service

US

Sergei Naryshkin

Speaker of the lower house of parliament

US and EU

Vladislav Surkov

Presidential aide and election adviser

US and EU

Dmitry Rogozin

Deputy Prime Minister

US and EU

Sergei Glazyev

Adviser on Ukraine policy

US and EU

Sergei Mironov

Member of Russian Parliament

US

Dmitry Kozak

Deputy Prime Minister

US and EU

Ludmila Shvetsova

Deputy Chair State Duma

EU

Sergei Chemezov

Director of Rostec (state high-technologies division)

US

Others

Bank Rossiya

Russian bank

US

Dmitry Kiselyov

State television news anchor

EU

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