DONETSK, Ukraine — Pro-Russian militants seized police stations and other security facilities in the most populous part of eastern Ukraine on Saturday, in a brush fire of violent unrest that the government in Kiev immediately denounced as Russian “aggression.”
The attacks on the Police Headquarters here in Donetsk and on a police station and a state security branch in Slovyansk about 50 miles away, along with reports of shootings in several other towns, suggested a coordinated campaign to destabilize the Donetsk region, a vitally important industrial and coal-mining area that borders Russia.
Six days earlier, pro-Russian activists seized the headquarters of the regional government, declared an independent People’s Republic of Donetsk, and demanded a referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, called an emergency meeting late Saturday of the country’s national security council to discuss the escalating crisis in the mainly Russian-speaking east of the country.
Fears that the government is losing control have been fueled by the militants’ seizing of a large number of weapons during the last week. Some 300 automatic rifles were taken from the Donetsk offices of the state security service after it was briefly taken over by pro-Russian protesters last weekend, and according to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, 400 Makarov handguns and 20 automatic weapons were looted Saturday from the occupied police station in Slovyansk.
“The goal of the takeover was the guns,” the ministry said in a statement.
The demands of the pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine, however, keep shifting between outright secession and greater autonomy within Ukraine for the region to run its own affairs. But calls for unity with Russia now seem to predominate, heightening concerns in Washington and in European capitals that Moscow is orchestrating the disorder to create a pretext for an invasion. Tens of thousands of Russian troops have been massed for weeks on the Russian side of the border a few score miles from Donetsk.
Unlike the unidentified armed men who seized Ukrainian government buildings and military facilities in Crimea — and later turned out to be Russian soldiers — in late February and early March as a prelude to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula, the gunmen behind Saturday’s attacks in Donetsk, the home region of the ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, appeared to be Russian-speaking local residents and not professional Russian troops.
Even so, Arsen Avakov, the acting interior minister in the shaky new Ukrainian government that came to power after Yanukovych fled from Kiev on Feb. 21, immediately blamed Russia for the Donetsk attacks, saying that some of the weapons used in conducting the raids could be found only in Russian military hands. In a posting on his Facebook page, Avakov said the “Ukrainian government considers today’s facts as a manifestation of external aggression by the Russian Federation.”
Avakov said that troops from his ministry and the Ukrainian military were “implementing the operational response plan.” He did not elaborate, and the loyalty of the Ukrainian security forces based in eastern regions is regarded as uncertain. Avakov promised last week to end the pro-Russia activists’ occupation of the regional administration building in Donetsk within 48 hours, either through negotiation or by force, but that deadline passed with protesters still in possession of the 11-story building.
Donbass News, a local media organization, reported Saturday that the head of the regional branch of Ukraine’s state security service, Valery Ivanov, had been fired by the authorities in Kiev. It gave no reason. Opponents of the pro-Russia activists in Donetsk have accused the region’s police and security service of sympathizing with calls for secession and of failing to take a robust stand against separatist militants.
Some of the men who stormed the Donetsk police building Saturday, according to witnesses, wore the uniforms of the Berkut, a riot police squad that took a leading role in trying to keep Yanukovych in power during repeated street clashes with pro-Europe protesters in Kiev.
The force, which was disbanded by the new government after Yanukovych fled, is viewed favorably by many Russian speakers in the east, but is generally loathed by the public in Kiev and in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country as a hated symbol of the old leadership.
On Friday, a group of young men who said they were former members of Berkut appeared at the occupied regional administration building in Donetsk and said they wanted to volunteer for service to the pro-Russian cause.
The presence of trained former riot police officers who may still be loyal to Yanukovych in the ranks of a movement opposed to the new central government stirred suspicions that the former president, who has taken refuge in Russia, may be trying to stage a comeback, with help from Moscow. Yanukovych has repeatedly insisted since he fled Kiev that he remains the country’s legitimate president and that he plans to return to Ukraine.