Pro-Russia supporters attack a rival activist, who is trying to protect his head on the stairs, during a rally in Kharkiv. (AP)
Slaviansk/Kiev, April 14 (Reuters): Pro-Russian separatists today ignored an ultimatum to leave occupied government buildings in eastern Ukraine while another group of rebels attacked a police headquarters as a threatened military offensive by government forces failed to materialise.
Rebels in the town of Slaviansk, which was expected today to be the focus of a broad government “anti-terrorist” operation involving the army, issued a bold call for Russian President Vladimir Putin to help them.
Ukraine’s interim President Oleksander Turchinov said today the offensive would still go ahead. But in a sign of discord behind the scenes in Kiev, he sacked the state security chief in charge of the operation.
Turchinov also took a risky step to try to undercut rebels’ demands by holding out the prospect of a referendum on the future shape of the Ukrainian state. He suggested a nationwide referendum could be held at the same time as a presidential election on May 25.
Pro-Russian secessionists want referendums to be held, but only in their regions in the east, which Kiev says is illegal.
The uprising by armed men in uniform who have seized buildings in towns across eastern Ukraine began eight days ago and has accelerated in the past 48 hours, with separatists seizing ever more buildings on behalf of a self-proclaimed independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk”.
Kiev says the separatists are organised by Moscow and include Russian troops in their midst, openly seeking to repeat the seizure of the Crimea region, which Moscow occupied and annexed last month. Russia says the armed men are all locals acting on their own but it retains the right to intervene to protect them. Nato says Russia has tens of thousands of troops massed on the frontier.
The EU threatened Russia with more sanctions. Britain said Moscow was clearly behind Ukraine’s instability, although other EU states said diplomacy should be given more time.
As the 0600 GMT deadline issued by authorities in Kiev expired, a Reuters reporter in Slaviansk saw nothing to show the rebels were obeying the ultimatum.
One of the rebel leaders, in an appeal issued through journalists, asked Putin to “help us as much as you can”. The Kremlin said the Russian President was listening. “Unfortunately, there’s a great many such appeals coming from the Eastern Ukrainian regions addressed directly to Putin to intervene in this or that form,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.