DONETSK, Ukraine – Ukrainian authorities moved to quell pro-Moscow uprisings along the Russian border with mixed results Tuesday, retaking one occupied regional headquarters and watching protesters consolidate their hold on another.
In a third city, Luhansk, Ukraine’s Security Service said separatists armed with explosives and other weapons were holding 60 people hostage inside the agency’s local headquarters.
Those occupying the building issued a video statement saying they want a referendum on the region’s status and warning that any attempt to storm the place would be met with armed force.
In the video, posted by Ukrainian media, a masked man identified the occupiers as Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and said that if authorities try to retake the building, “Welcome to hell, then!”
The Ukrainian government and the U.S. have accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest as a pretext for another Russian military incursion like the takeover of Crimea last month. Up to 40,000 Russian troops are massed along the Ukrainian border, according to NATO.
All the cities affected by the uprisings are in Ukraine’s industrial heartland in the east, which has a large population of ethnic Russians and where hostility is strong toward the government that took power in February after the ouster of Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych.
European Union envoy Catherine Ashton said she will meet with U.S., Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers next week to discuss the situation – the first four-way meeting since the crisis erupted.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry threatened tougher economic sanctions against Moscow.
“What we see from Russia is an illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Kerry called the demonstrations in eastern Ukraine a “contrived pretext for military intervention, just as we saw in Crimea.”
Earlier Tuesday, Ukrainian authorities battled pro-Russian protesters and regained control over a government building in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, evicting the protesters and detaining dozens.
In Donetsk, a city 155 miles south of Kharkiv, protesters dug in for their third day at the 11-story regional administration headquarters they captured Sunday and began forming their own parallel government.
There was little sign Tuesday afternoon that Ukrainian government forces had any immediate plans to clear the regional administration building, and Taruta insisted he wanted to see the situation resolved peacefully.
The city has been the site of weekly rallies and marches, but Sunday saw an escalation of that strategy when masked men carrying batons burst through police lines to take over the building.