Life turns surreal in separatist-held east Ukraine

21st April 2014, Comments 0 comments

An armoured vehicle with a Russian flag fluttering atop it rumbles down the quiet streets of this provincial Ukrainian town as pro-Moscow militants fearing a government offensive fill sandbags inside the occupied town hall.

A surreal glimpse at daily life in the separatist-held town of Slavyansk, which has gone into lockdown after a gun battle nearby killed at least two militants over the weekend.

Eventually the APC draws up along Karl Marx street and parks next to another two armoured vehicles. They were seized by separatists when the army launched a disastrous offensive against them last week, and they are now the pride of the rebels' arsenal.

"Victory will be ours. We will rid Ukraine of fascists and neo-Nazis," says a nearby man in a ski mask, who refuses to identify himself but acts like a spokesman for the rebels.

"I am a Ukrainian patriot," he adds, as a Russian flag flaps in the wind above the local office of Ukraine's security service behind him.

Later a young woman, her eyes covered with a white blindfold, is led out by another rebel to the back of the building.

This is Irma Krat from Kiev, who is accused of participating in attacks on opponents of the current pro-Western national government.

Despite being a captive, Krat -- her face now uncovered -- gives an impromptu press conference where she says that she is a 29-year-old journalist and has been well treated by those holding her.

"They aren't accusing me of anything," she says.

"They are just checking to see what I've done" in this region.

After Sunday's gun fight at a rebel checkpoint outside the town the separatists imposed a curfew in Slavyansk forbidding locals from being on the streets between midnight and dawn.

Despite fear of a possible renewed military operation by the government to oust them, the militants say that everything is calm -- at least for the time being.

"There weren't any shots fired last night," says pro-Russian Evgeny Gorbik.

"Currently, we have a virtual president, a virtual army and a virtual war," he quips.

- Rappers and rifles -

In front of the town hall, a young militant with a Kalashnikov rifle dangling from his bullet-proof vest chants a rap song and dances as the town's new self-proclaimed leader, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, appeals again for Russian aid.

"We need arms and ammunition now," Ponomaryov tells AFP.

The rebels do not have enough weapons to "defend ourselves until the fascists are eliminated from Ukraine," he says.

A day earlier, Ponomaryov appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin -- whom Kiev and the West accuse of masterminding the separatist uprising -- to send in Russian troops as "peacekeepers" to protect the local population from nationalists.

So far, Putin has not answered the call.

But Slavyansk's rebels, with their armoured vehicles and Russian flags, are determined to stand their ground regardless.

© 2014 AFP

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