Five people have been killed in a gunfight in Slavyansk, a city in eastern Ukraine held by anti-government protesters. The fatalities include three protesters and two attackers, who are believed to be from the Right Sector paramilitary. The deaths came after a night attack on a protester checkpoint on the outskirts of the city. Four cars drove by the checkpoint and opened fire at the local residents manning it, killing two people and seriously injuring several others.
“They approached with their high beam headlamps on. Our man went to them and asked not to blind us, show IDs and open the trunk for inspection. Then an assault rifle got stuck out of the window and he was gunned down,” an eyewitness, Vladimir, told RT. He added some of the people trying to flee the attackers were shot in their backs. One gunshot victim died later in hospital from a head wound, local medics confirmed. Two others are undergoing treatment.
The checkpoint was in the control of 26 civilians armed with bats. Their lack of firearms was due to a so-called “Easter truce” announced by both the Kiev authorities and the protest leaders to de-escalate tension. Among the victims of the night attack is Sergey Rudenko, 53, who worked as a school bus driver, his wife told RIA Novosti. He lived in a village near Slavyansk and was guarding the checkpoint on Easter night together with his two adult sons.
As the civilians were pinned down, a group of 20 protesters with firearms came from the city. They opened fire on the attackers, killing two of them and sent the rest running. Five attackers were injured by the retaliating forces, protest leader, Vyacheslav Ponomaryev, said.
Donetsk region’s junta interior ministry confirmed fatalities in the gunfight, but said it has information on only three deaths – two among the local residents and one among the attackers. The identity of the attacker is yet to be established, the law enforcers said.
The protesters captured two of the attackers’ four cars, which were damaged in the gunfight and later torched by protesters angry over the deaths of their fellow Slavyansk residents. Footage of the equipment confiscated showed firearms including a machine gun, a night vision device, aerial photos of Slavyansk, military uniforms, camping tools and other things handy for guerrilla warfare.
Later on Sunday the protesters claimed they had detained one of the perpetrators who confessed he was from the Right Sector. “The young man lost his squad and was trying to flee Slavyansk hitch-hiking towards Kharkov,” one of the self-defense members told RIA Novosti. The detainee is 22 years old. He said he came from the Vinnitsya region to Kiev for the EuroMaidan protests and there he joined the Right Sector. There was also found a medallion with Right Sector paramilitary symbols, which implicated the radical nationalist movement in the attack.
The attackers may have been planning a subsequent raid on the protester-held TV tower in Slavyansk, which is marked by a circle on the maps discovered at the captured cars, Ponomaryev said. The protester’s self-defense force HQ told Interfax that there were reports of gunfire near four other checkpoints overnight, but no clashes happened at either of them.
In a separate incident in central Slavyansk, two people have been injured overnight, after a group of unidentified gunmen fired at them. Two young men were shot in the leg after they ignored an order to stop and tried to flee, RIA Novosti reported. The report gives no account of events after the shooting, but both victims are now in hospital.
Protest leaders ordered a curfew in Slavyansk between 12:00pm and 06:00am in response to the overnight violence. Ponomaryev also called on Russia to send peacekeepers to Slavyansk to protect local citizens from further attacks. “They are killing our brothers. It’s open warfare against the people,” he said. “They don’t talk to us, they simply kill.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the night’s violence on Sunday, saying it puts in question Kiev’s ability to disarm radical groups.
Protesters in eastern Ukraine have captured government buildings across the Donetsk region over the past two weeks. They call the authorities in Kiev illegitimate and are demanding a referendum to vote on autonomy for their region. Similar calls are coming from other eastern Ukrainian regions. And from Odessa in the south.
Kiev deployed military and special operation troops to the Donetsk region in a bid to crackdown on what they referred to “terrorist actions” by the protesters. The crackdown so far has been futile, with a number of troops switching sides to the protesters. There are indications that the Kiev authorities simply do not have enough loyal troops to crackdown on the protest. On Saturday the Interior Ministry called without shame on former members of the Berkut riot police, which had been branded as thugs and criminals by the new authorities, to return to service. The ministry said the Berkut troops must forget their past grievances (sic) and protect Ukraine from what Kiev calls a secret invasion by a covert Russian operation (resic). The allegations have not been confirmed by an OSCE observer mission in the Donetsk region.
Russia, Ukraine, the US and the EU signed an agreement this week in Geneva aimed at de-escalating the tension in Ukraine. One of the key points in it is disarming militias and paramilitary units in the country. But neither Right Sector and similar pro-Maidan groups nor the anti-Maidan militias in the east seem to be willing to take the first step.
KH & LM