Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Ukraine should withdraw its military from the eastern and southern regions of the country, a statement that could bolster anti-government insurgents who are seizing buildings.
Hours later, Ukraine’s acting president ordered that the military draft be renewed, citing “threats of encroachment on the nation’s territorial integrity” and interference by Russia in its internal affairs.
Moscow has consistently denounced Ukrainian security forces’ largely ineffectual operation against the eastern insurgents and warned they should not commit violence against civilians.
Meanwhile, in the regional capital city of Donetsk, anti-government demonstrators took over the regional prosecutor’s office Thursday. Riot police standing guard at the office fired stun grenades and tear gas when some at the front of the crowd of several hundred people attempted to force their way into the building.
Upon occupying the building, protesters discarded the Ukrainian flag and replaced it with that of the Donetsk People’s Republic — a movement that seeks either greater autonomy from the central government, or independence and possible annexation by Russia.
Donetsk is the heartland of support for Russia-friendly ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February after months of protests in the capital. Opponents of the government that succeeded him have seized buildings in about a dozen cities and towns in eastern Ukraine.
Local news website Novosti Donbassa reported that earlier in the day around 30 armed men arrived in Amvrosiivka, which lies close to the Russian border, and took over the city council and forced the mayor to resign.
On Wednesday, insurgents took control of the customs-service building in Donetsk and city hall in Alchevsk, an industrial center of 110,000, adding to the scores of buildings taken by the separatists over the past month in the east, where a dozen cities are in the hands of the separatists.
The armed element of the insurgency is focused on Slovyansk, a city 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Donetsk in which seven European observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe remain held by pro-Russia gunmen.