Pro-Moscow separatists seized government offices in more Ukrainian towns on Wednesday, in a further sign that authorities in Kiev are losing control of the country’s eastern industrial heartland bordering Russia.
Gunmen who turned up at dawn took control of official buildings in Horlivka, a city of almost 300,000 people, said a Reuters photographer.
The heavily armed men wore the same military uniforms without insignia as other unidentified “green men” who have joined pro-Russian protesters with clubs and chains in seizing control of towns across Ukraine’s Donbass coal and steel belt.
Some 30 pro-Russian separatists also seized a city council building in Alchevsk, further east in Luhansk region, Interfax-Ukraine news agency said. They took down the Ukrainian flag and flew a city banner before allowing workers to leave.
Attempts to contain the insurgency by the government in Kiev have proved largely unsuccessful, with security forces repeatedly outmaneuvered by the separatists. The West and the new Ukrainian government accuse Russia of being behind the unrest, a charge Moscow denies.
Many in eastern Ukraine hope to follow Crimea’s break from Ukraine in March and subsequent annexation by Russia.
The Donbass region is home to giant steel smelters and plants that produce up to a third of Ukraine’s industrial output. An armed uprising began there in early April, with Kiev almost powerless to respond for fear of provoking an invasion by tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the border.
Many Russian-speaking business “oligarchs” from the Donbass had backed Yanukovych and exercise great influence over the region. On Wednesday, the most powerful of these, Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, issued a formal statement saying he remained committed to his investments in the Donbass and to keeping the region as part of Ukraine.
Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk warned his ministers their jobs were on the line if the east remained out of reach — “The country demands action,” he said.
Oleksander Turchinov, Ukraine’s acting president, reiterated on Wednesday that police were incapable of reasserting control in the region and said the armed forces were on full alert for a Russian invasion.
That prompted a return volley from Moscow, where the Foreign Ministry demanded that Kiev “immediately ceases the bellicose rhetoric, which is aimed at intimidating its own population.”