Pro-Russians attack security office in Ukraine's Donetsk
Pro-Kremlin protesters on Saturday attacked a security service building in the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk, demanding the release of their self-appointed "governor" and their own right to vote on joining Russia.
The rally came on the eve of a referendum in Crimea, which was all but certain to back the peninsula's split from Ukraine and its entry into the Russian Federation.
"Referendum, Referendum," the crowd of at least 5,000 chanted in Donetsk's Lenin Square as about a dozen riot police casually looked on, before the protesters marched on the local headquarters of the SBU intelligence agency.
Two young men climbed on top of the entrance of the building, tore down the Ukrainian flag and replaced it with Russian one emblazoned with the words "Donetsk Republic".
The protest comes three weeks after a popular uprising toppled Ukraine's pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and forces loyal to Moscow seized control of the Crimean peninsula.
It also illustrates the tightrope that the new Western-leaning authorities in Kiev have to tread in the mainly Russian-speaking east.
In Donetsk, the crowd demanded the release of Pavel Gubarev, the region's self-declared "people's governor", whom the Ukrainian authorities arrested on March 6 and are investigating for separatism.
"The people are angry with the police and government, who are clamping down on our protesters," said Robert Donia, who describes himself as Gubarev's deputy.
"They freed the Maidan protesters (pro-Europeans who ousted Yanukovych) but have kept ours in jails. Why do their laws work only for them?" he told AFP before leading a rally cry of "Referendum, Referendum!"
A tense stand-off ensued with some protesters barging through the police cordon and smashing some glass panels.
Donia however calmed the situation by declaring that he had negotiated an agreement for Gubarev's release on Sunday.
"If they don't free him tomorrow, we'll be back with twice as many people," he told the crowd.
- Right to demonstrate -
The protesters insisted they were merely exercising their right to demonstrate in the same way their pro-European rivals did in Kiev when they forced out Yanukovych.
"The purpose of this meeting is to demonstrate that Donbass (the Donetsk region) doesn't support the revolution that happened in Kiev," said Viktor Levandovski, a 32-year-old chemical engineer.
"We don't want to live under fascists. We want self-determination," he told AFP.
A historian who only identified herself as Natalis agreed, saying the people of eastern Ukraine had the same right to protest as those in the west.
"This part of the country has its own values, its own heroes, own opinions, own bandits, and its own history of developing under the Russian empire," she said.
David Gorman, Eurasia director at the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which mediates conflicts, said the new authorities in Ukraine were being forced to "walk a tightrope" in Russian-populated areas.
The country's interim leaders "have to strike a balance between ensuring law and order and leading efforts at conciliation," he said as he ended a tour of Ukraine's restive east.
"But the positions are so wide right now that it's very difficult to see them patching things up soon."
© 2014 AFP