Ukraine Liveblog Day 55: Police Fight Separatists in Gun Battles

April 13, 2014
Pro-Russian gunmen guard police station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slaviansk after it was captured | Anatoliy Stepanov/ Getty

The gunfire has started. Last night there were several battles between police and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. This morning, Ukraine has announced an “anti-terrorist operation” in Slaviansk. All of this is made more concerning as evidence builds that suggests that some of these separatists are really members of the Russian military.

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

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An interactive map of the situation:

View Ukraine: April 9, 2014 in a larger map

Below we will be making regular updates. Be sure to check back often and hit refresh.

1303 GMT: As we reported earlier, there are worries that the Ukrainian police are losing control over Slaviansk, and perhaps much of eastern Ukraine:


This is even more concerning when one considers that a second poll has just come out which confirms the results of other polls — Russian separatism has very little popular support in eastern Ukraine.

1258 GMT: The Ukrainian Defence Ministry has released this picture of today’s raid:


1253 GMT: This morning, news wires report that there has been an anti-terrorism operation launched by Ukrainian forces against Russian separatists. The Guardian reports:

One Ukrainian state security officer has been killed and five others wounded in an “anti-terrorist” operation on Sunday against pro-Russian separatist militants in a city in the east, the interior minister said.

On the side of the separatists there had been an “unidentifiable number” of casualties during the operation in the town of Slaviansk, the minister, Arsen Avakov, said on his Facebook page.

“There were dead and wounded on both sides,” Avakov said.
About 1,000 people were giving support to the separatists, he added.

Ukrainian security forces launched an “anti-terrorist” operation to end the grip of separatists on an eastern town earlier on Sunday.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov warned civilians to avoid the gunfights:

“It is managed by Anti-terrorist Center of the Security Service of Ukraine. All the law enforcement agencies of the country are participating. Godspeed!” Avakov wrote.

“Tell all civilians to leave the center of town — don’t leave your apartment, or go to the window,” he added.

CNN reports that the response from Kiev may have been much weaker than these statements indicate, however.

On a thorough tour of the town, the CNN crew saw no security presence — with the exception of a single police car and a helicopter flying above.

Did CNN just miss the anti-terror operation? Or is Kiev demonstrating that it is struggling to respond to this threat?

Below we’ve carried over our reports from overnight.

1117 GMT: One mystery is solved — it turns out that Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov didn’t put any fresh status post on his Facebook page, but two hours ago, put the news of the shootout in a comment replying to others, below his post. Here is a translation from The Interpreter:

“Slavyansk. Killed and wounded on both sides. On our side — an officer of the SBU. The head of the SBU Anti-Terrorist Center is wounded, along with four others. On the side of the separatists — the number has not been established. Separatists began to use human shields from the civilian population. There is a re-grouping of the forces.

In Kramatorsk, people are not happy with the actions of those who have come…In Slavyansk, the level of support is about 1,000 people. The SBU has declared a re-grouping.”

Note that Avakov specifies that one is killed and five others are wounded, not “five killed” as some Russian media are reporting. His Facebook comment is so far the only report on this shoot-out that has not been confirmed directly by foreign or local reporters on the scene.

1046 GMT: Russian and Ukrainian media continue to report that there was a shoot-out with deaths and wounded; foreign reporters on the ground don’t find any such thing:

Meanwhile, a nasty threat has been made against a Russian journalist who has been reporting from Slavyansk for Ekho Moskvy:

: @Pravdiva_pravda We are distributing the photo of the traitor!!!
Text Translation: ANNA News agency appeals to coordinators of the units of the resistance to the Kiev junta. Spies and provocateurs are operating at your positions. One of them, who has been involved in exposing activists, their photos and video locations, is a certain Ilya Azar @AZAR who is working for the USA and the Kiev junta. We ask you to distribute and bring this information to the Resistance!

1024 GMT: The Russian state news agency Vesti is reporting that Ukrainian forces shot at demonstrators, and is citing the Ukrainian Interior Minister’s Facebook page — except there does not appear to be any such post on his page. Here is an excerpt from the Vesti report translated by The Interpreter:

“During a special operation in Slavyansk Donetsk Region, an officer of the Ukrainian Security Service [SBU] was killed along with five law-enforcers. Activists also suffered casualties, which Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has reported on his Facebook page, Interfax reports.

Earlier, Vyacheslav Rudenko, one of the commanders of the self-defense units, stated that Ukrainian APCs situated next to the village of Semenovka not far from Slavyansk began to shoot at people. A civilian was wounded, Rossiya 24 reported.”

Yet a Kiev photojournalist says the protesters report no one was wounded:

Translation: @xxxpitx A representative of the protesters #Slavyansk stated that there are no casualties on their side.

As the Russian Foreign Ministry repeatedly has stated that any use of force by Ukrainian forces will scuttle the Geneva peace talks, there is concern about the accuracy of the reports. Russia may also be looking for an excuse to escalate military action.

Demonstrators are still reported as blocking a road outside of town.

1005 GMT: Continuing contradictory reports from Slavyansk. The Russian state news service Vesti is reporting that one SBU [Ukrainian State Security] officer has been killed along with five other law-enforcers in a shoot-out with pro-Russian separatists. AP just moved a story reporting the killing of one Ukrainian officer, citing the Facebook page of Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov:

“Arsen Avakov said in a Facebook post Sunday the Security Service officer was killed in Slovyansk where a police station was seized by camouflaged armed men.

An Associated Press reporter on the ground didn’t see any unrest there when he arrived.”

The Russian state news agency Interfax reported the same story.

Yet there isn’t any such story of a killing in Slavyansk on Avakov’s Facebook page, which was updated four hours ago and which we translated at the time.

What’s going on?

0943 GMT: Ilya Azar has a long and colorful report on the last day’s events in Slavyansk posted at Ekho Moskvy. A translation by The Interpreter of an excerpt:

Photo by Ilya Azar

Photo by Ilya Azar

“The Ukrainian flag over the administration building in Slavyansk was replaced by the Russian residents of the city themselves (a typical affair for the Donbass by now). Women standing on the square under the statue of Lenin recounted how the Russian tri-color was hung three times; first it fell down, then it was hung upside down. A guard at the mayor’s office said that he didn’t try to block the crowd, so that he wasn’t taken into the building along with the doors.

In fact, if the Russian flag over the administration building was hung personally by Slavyansk Mayor Nelya Shtepa, no one would have been surprised. She previously actively supported Viktor Yanukovych and in general is quite an odious figure. A striking buxom blonde of middle age, she immediately supported the seizure of the buildings, saying that the TV channel LifeNews had come just in time, that ‘the whole city has stood up in defense, defending the guys who seized the building’ and that ‘I cannot object to them, since Slavyansk considers Russia its elder brother and we will not fight with Russia.’

There is almost no one in front of the administration building this evening — there is no point to seize it, there are no people here with arms, and therefore it is dull to stand around here. Several dozen people who are here routinely curse the new Ukrainian government and totally support the armed attack on the city which, in fact, they consider not an attack, but a defense.”

0916 GMT: Reports from Slavyansk are contradictory; local news media are saying there was a Ukrainian police action against pro-Russian separatists with casualties, but British reporter Simon Ostrovsky tweeting from the police station says “all quiet” and asks why Ukrainian Interior Minister is “talking bull”.

There is grave concern that reports of killings of separatists by Ukrainian law-enforcement could serve as a pretext for further Russian military action.

Translation: @novostidnua There are people killed and wounded on both sides in Slavyansk — Interior Ministry — Donbass News.

0902 GMT: VICE’s Simon Ostrovsky is reporting from inside the “People’s Republic”:

0847 GMT: Sergei Garmash, editor of the Russian-language local news site reports on the pro-separatist take-overs, using the term “Colorado beetle,” the nick-name for those who wear the black-and-orange striped St. George ribbons:

Translation: @s_garmash The active phase of the operation in Slavyansk is over. They are counting the losses. There are some. Now they are taking down the checkpoint on the BZS (highway).

Translation: @s_garmash Near the Kramatorsk police station, a crowd of patriots is gathering. The Russian saboteurs have left the police building. Several local Colorado beetles are standing around.

Translation: Report from Slavyansk: our paratroopers destroyed the Colorado beetles’ checkpoint. The terrorists are being shot at in the city police department.

0837 GMT: Old people carrying icons and Russian flags block the road into Slavyansk.

0832 GMT: After pro-Russian separatists from the “Donetsk People’s Republic” took over the police building in Kramatorsk yesterday, one of the separatists came out to speak to a crowd that had gathered. A video uploaded yesterday provides a glimpse of the scene as the “people’s militia” — widely reported as instigated by Russian intelligence — encounter the actual people in a town they are “liberating”:

“If we become a confederative republic, our money will stop going to Kiev,” says the separatist, expressing a common complaint of people in the poorer areas of the south-east. “Our money, earned in our coal mines, will remain here, in the Donbass.”

But the “People’s Republic” didn’t seem to be going over so well. He was met with cat-calls and whistles, and shouts of “who are you?!” and “you guys are idiots”.

“We’re the People’s Republic,” he insisted. “But then who are we?” shouted a woman back at him. “Who do you represent?” shouted a man.

0758 GMT: Reports of revolts still underway in nine eastern towns this morning; in Gorlovka, Ukrainian police have restored order, Donbass News reports.

0747 GMT: More local reports from towns in the region by @novostidnua, Donbass News:

Translation: @novostidnua Kramatorsk: separatists attacked civic activist Stas Chernohor and stole his video camera. Details on our site.

Translation: @novostidnua Druzhkovka: situation is calm, executive committee [local government] not seized, police working in regular regimen

Translation: @novostidnua Mariopol: separatists have tried to seize the news office of the local site 0629 and TV Sigma, but left

Translation: @novostidnua Kramatorsk: separatists have set up a checkpoint near the military airfield

0742 GMT: A report from local Donbass News on action by Ukrainian special forces:

Translation: @novostidnua Ukrainian spetsnaz have removed one of the checkpoints in Slavyansk.

0735 GMT: Here is a translation by The Interpreter of an interview reportedly with a pro-Russian fighter in Slavyansk, uploaded yesterday by Midgard-INFO Vedicheskoye News Agency.

“Fighter: We are the Popular Front of Donbass. We came to the city of Slavyansk, and locals came to support the people’s power in this city. And now a liberation struggle is underway, all those who obey the illegal government, that is, Turchynov, Yatsenyuk and the others who came to power through a coup. The people are greatly outraged. When we asked peacefully, they didn’t listen to us. So now we’ve resorted to their methods and have taken up arms, and now no one will put down arms until we come to victory. But when we come, we will lay them down. We’re peaceful people of Donbass, we’re not fascists.

Reporter: What about the police in the building?

Fighter: There wasn’t a single police officer in the building. Not a single woman. No one was hurt. I guarantee you. No civilians were hurt. We don’t want war and we don’t want bloodshed. We’re here to defend law and order of the People’s Republic.

Reporter: People are concerned that under your brand, looting and theft could start. There’s a switchboard here where telephone calls about robberies come in, where reports of crimes come in. How will law-enforcement be maintained in this situation?

Fighter: The city department, criminal investigation, patrols, all the rest, all of those departments that were subordinate to the city, they will continue to work as before, without interruption. We’re only here to maintain law and order and help the city, so there will be order, and no provocations or raids by Right Sector, Svoboda, UPA and others

[Crowd cheering]

Reporter: Are you planning to be here long? Do you plan to seize other buildings?

Fighter: We’ll be here to the end. Until there will be a referendum. All the cities are going to be brought under guard and we will repeat the Crimea.

Reporter: What is it you’re trying to achieve with a referendum, tell me?

Fighter: The people will have to decide. Either a federation, or a part of Russia or total autonomy of the Donbass Territory — the people will decide that.

Reporter: If negotiators come to talk to you from the authorities now in Kiev, will you talk to them?

Fighter: We will not talk to them because we tried asking them, they didn’t listen, now we’re not going to listen to them. There will be a forceful scenario, and for every person killed, there will be a thousand more.

Reporter: Do you plan to go around the city? Because, well, people are afraid when they see guns.

Fighter: Yes, there will be patrols jointly with police officers, everything will be according to law and there will be law and order.”

0703 GMT: This is how ITAR-TASS reported the situation in Kramatorsk this morning, translated by The Interpreter:

“Representatives of the ‘People’s Militia of Donbass’ occupied the building of the Kramatorsk City Department of the Donetsk Region Main Directorate of the Interior Ministry [police]. About 50 armed people entered the building, several shots were heard. According to eye-witnesses, no one was hurt, and no one went to local hospitals.

Volunteers took the building within several minutes. Soon afterward, all the police officers left the building without their weapons, Pavel Volovoy, a commander of the People’s Militia of the Donbass told ITAR-TASS.”

Some Twitter commentators were skeptical of how authentically local and civilian the militia was:

Translation: These are those residents of Donbass driven to desperation, according to Lavrov [Russian foreign minister].

0659 GMT: Russian correspondent Ilya Azar, formerly of and now a special correspondent for Ekho Moskvy, is on the scene in Slavyansk, where Ukrainian forces have begun an “anti-terrorist operation.”

Translation: Outside of Slavyansk, smoke is visible, it looks like they are coming from there into town.

Translation: @AZAR Helicopters have stopped flying but people are saying that there is shooting somewhere on the approaches and they are calling everyone to go to the city police department (that is, to die?)

0629 GMT: Ukrainian Interior Minister Avakov has reported on his Facebook page that an “anti-terrorist operation” has begun, and made an impassioned plea, reported. The Interpreter’s translation:

“1. An anti-terrorist operation has begun in Slavyansk. It is being led by the Anti-Terrorist Center of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU). Forces from all the law-enforcement divisions of the country have been brought in. God speed!

2. (unofficially, emotionally)

Who are these idiots who have sent people into Kharkiv, which had barely gone back to a peaceful life through gigantic efforts — without fights and bonfires? Who are those puppeteers, who are doing this at a moment when we need to concentrate on Donbass?! Who are you, rogues and provocateurs?! You wanted once again to set Kharkiv on fire with Molotov cocktails and arouse the base part of the Colorado beetles [those wearing the Russian nationalists’ striped orange and black St. George ribbons–Interpreter], to frighten the neutral “with military rightists”?! You wanted so that by evening, not only Donetsk and Lugansk but Kharkiv as well would burn? Who are you working for, who is using you and your emotions, friends?! Turn on your brains, at last, those who are being used blindly for such things. Kharkiv people from EuroMaidan — what, are you watching all this in silence?! Or is a pose and “a little war” higher than the interests of the country and peace in your own city? Or do you know at what price the fragile stabilization was reached in Kharkiv? Curse and take down whom you wish, including even me — but don’t lose common sense, the east of the country must not be lost!

Before the clash between the Poltava police and 5 buses of visitors in Chutovo, there were enormous efforts made not to allow the convoy to enter Kharkov, to stop and turn the line of vehicles back..It failed. I appealed to politicians and politicos — they’ve gone into hiding. They are populists and irresponsible people. I have become convinced that for many of our “heroes,” going to bring order to peaceful Kharkiv, a pose is higher than the interests of the country.

I appealed to the Prosecutor’s Office regarding the facts of actions of the police in Poltava Region and asked that an investigation be made and an evaulation made of the clash that occurred.”

Other live reports of Ukrainian operation beginning against pro-Russian protestors:

0402 GMT: Ukrainska Pravda reports that the group of “Russian saboteurs” who were involved in the attack on Slovyansk are now moving toward Kharkiv, citing an account on the web site Waves based on an unnamed source in law-enforcement early Sunday morning.

There is concern this could represent “a new wave of destabilization in eastern Ukraine in Kharkov and possibly Kherson regions.” The report also claims the involvement of Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov and his subordinate Alexei Vorobyov in the operation.

0049 GMT: A late-night extraordinary session of the Ukrainian Council for National Security and Defense was held on the situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine, reported at 23:39 local time 12 April.

Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov invited to the session the governors of the “problem” regions in which outbursts of separatism have been reported, reported, citing an unidentified source.

Turchynov was said to be discussing with the regional leaders the option of introducing a state of emergency, said

0038 GMT: Military analyst Dmitry Tymchuk of the Information Resistance in Kiev provides his take on the events of the day in a Facebook post here. Translation by The Interpreter:

“According to operational information from the Information Resistance group, the current extremist actions in the south-eastern regions of Ukraine are initiated and directed by a network of coordinators from the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces [the GRU].

Agents of the Russian GRU have been identified who staged the seizures of government bodies and blocked Ukrainian military bases in the Crimea in March.

Earlier, as we reported, a group of these GRU agents were transported from the Crimea to Rostov-on-the-Don.

The purpose of these current actions are to seize as many local government and law-enforcement buildings as possible before 17 April, that is, before the meeting in Geneva of the representatives from Ukraine, European Union, the US and Russia on settling the crisis in our country. According to the Russian government’s plan, this will provide an opportunity for Russia to make a statement about the lack of control over the situation in Ukraine on the part of the Ukrainian government, and also about its illegitimacy in the eyes of a significant part of the population.”

His latest update:

“For the last hours, the divisions of Russian troops near the eastern borders of Ukraine have changed the areas of their deployment, have dispersed to their locations and have taken measures to mask their weapons and military vehicles.

All together, the total number of Russians forces (according to our estimates, of the order of 50,000 men) has not been reduced.

An additional 20 or so transport combat helicopters have been deployed to the airfields in the border zone by Russian soldiers. The total number of units of army aviation has reached 240.”