Europe

Ukraine crisis: Traffic of war in a border town

Gun barrels in Donetsk, Ukraine, 29 May Image copyright AP
Image caption Anti-aircraft cannon being used by pro-separatist forces in Donetsk this week

The separatist-held east Ukrainian town of Antratsyt is turning into a hub for fighters and arms from neighbouring Russia, one frightened resident has told BBC News.

Like the smokeless anthracite coal from which it takes its name, the town appears to be quietly burning with martial activity.

Cossack militiamen from the neighbouring Russian region of Rostov and fighters from the North Caucasus wander its streets, Oxana (not her real name) said by telephone.

Armoured troop carriers pass through the streets, four, five, six at a time, according to the woman, who is in her mid-thirties.

A friend in a block of flats closer to the centre, she says, witnessed helicopters hovering over the town centre at about 04:00 a few days earlier.

After they left, a "huge" quantity of military hardware lay on the square, including what appeared to be heavy machine-guns and anti-aircraft cannon, destination unknown.

A barracks for the Cossacks is being arranged and, more ominously again, a field hospital is being rigged up, Oxana says. In fact, she adds, medical kit for the treatment of battlefield injuries is disappearing from pharmacies.

Local men are being lured away from their jobs in the mines, she says, to join the separatist army with the promise of good food and pay.

In transit

I have only Oxana's word for the current situation in this town of 78,000 but some of her account matches recent reports by bloggers.

A video posted on YouTube on 5 May shows a convoy of Cossacks being greeted in Antratsyt.

Escorted by what appears to be a Ukrainian police car, the open-back lorries file past, Russian tricolours flying, the masked gunman aboard punching the air or flashing the V for Victory salute.

Celebrating the arrival of the Cossacks in the fight with the "killers" who took power in Kiev, the apparent author of the video writes that he has heard how the previous night (4 May) a convoy of armoured cars carrying North Caucasians passed through, regional lezginka folk music blaring from a window.

The idea that the Russians are coming to help the separatists fight Ukrainian "fascists" has been instilled in local people through relentless local and Russian propaganda, Oxana says.

In this multi-ethnic town - men once came from all over the old USSR to work in the mines, everyone from Armenians to Koreans - the Ukrainian language used to be spoken as freely as Russian, she says, but now people are afraid to use it.

Masks off

The fighting which has taken or shattered lives in the neighbouring region of Donetsk has passed Antratsyt so far, she says, but she has heard of two men being shot and killed in incidents at separatist checkpoints in the area.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there seems to be no problem yet with food supplies or the Ukrainian currency supply to banks, but the very sight of gunmen with their weapons on the streets is unnerving townspeople, even if everyday life continues much as normal.

"The Chechens don't wear masks and you see them with their big beards," Oxana says.

One of her neighbours asked a group out of curiosity - "we are full of curiosity in these parts", according to Oxana - where they were from and whether they were Chechens.

In broken, heavily accented Russian, they replied: "What Chechen? We are Russia Federation" (I Russian: "Kakoy chechentsy? My russkaya federatsia").

Traders at the markets are under pressure to donate food or clothing to the separatist cause, she says.

"Almost the whole population of the town really is inclined to believe that only Russia can help us now," Oxana says, stressing that there was a big turnout for the referendum on self-rule on 11 May.

But after months of relentless propaganda, people feel "intimidated" and "worked up", the local woman adds. "If you believe in Ukraine and want to remain part of it, you are even afraid to say so to close friends now."

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