At least two police stations in Ukraine's eastern region were taken as tensions continues to rise following Russia's annexation of Crimea
Hours after dozens of armed men seized a police station in a small town in eastern Ukraine, men dressed in the uniforms of Ukraine’s disbanded riot police reportedly began an occupation Saturday of another police headquarters in nearby Donetsk.
The first takeover occurred in Slovyansk, the Associated Press reports, just south of Donetsk. In Slovyansk, approximately 20 men sporting automatic rifles, balaclavas and ribbons that symbolize the Soviet Union’s victory in WWII were seen guarding the station’s entrance as another group of men was believed to be inside.
One of the masked men there, who identified himself to the AP only as “Sergei,” said the group has “only one demand: a referendum and joining Russia.”
Slovyansk’s police station was seized, he added, so the group could protect it from the radical nationalists in the western part of Ukraine. Pro-Russia protesters blame those groups for fomenting the unrest that has plagued the country since November, when President Viktor Yanukovych snubbed an E.U. association and trade deal in favor of closer ties with Russia. “We don’t want to be slaves of America and the West,” he said. “We want to live with Russia.”
The move comes nearly a week after protesters overran an administration building in Donetsk. They called for a secession referendum similar to Crimea, at first, but later reduced their wish to a vote on autonomy within Ukraine and the potential for a vote later on regarding whether to join Russia.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned Ukraine on Friday not to use force against the protesters, saying it would complicate the crisis-settling talks between the E.U., U.S., Russia and Ukraine that are set for next week.
Pro-Russia Ukrainians in parts of the country’s eastern region have been emboldened by Russia’s annexation of Crimea after residents there approved a referendum in March to cut ties with Kiev. The West labeled that vote illegitimate, imposing economic sanctions on Russia and the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin. But Russia hasn’t backed down. Instead, it has threatened to cut off Ukraine from energy supplies such as natural gas and nuclear fuel over price disputes.
MORE: Is Moscow Behind Ukraine’s Unrest?