MARIUPOL, Ukraine – Thousands gathered for peaceful demonstrations Thursday in at least four eastern cities to denounce Russia for its perceived meddling in Ukrainian affairs, a day after the most lethal clash so far killed three pro-Russian activists.
Political developments in eastern Ukraine have for weeks been dominated by a small, vocal and armed opposition to the interim government in Kiev. Thursday’s rallies, by contrast, drew crowds who listened to speeches condemning Russia and resisting the pro-Russian movement that is pushing for autonomy for eastern Ukraine.
Rallies were held in Donetsk, Luhansk, Mariupol and Kramatorsk, where key government buildings have been occupied by pro-Russian groups.
Parliamentary deputy Oleh Lyashko, who is running for office in the May 25 presidential election, rejected charges that Russian speakers in the east had been subject to any discrimination. He also said the armed groups active in the seizures of buildings would not prevail.
“Let those who have weapons be afraid of us, we will fight back. Let the ones who want to split up our country be afraid, because we won’t allow them to do it,” Lyashko said.
Hromadske television reported that police in Kramatorsk managed to thwart an attempt by pro-Russian activists to attack a pro-unity rally of about 500 people.
Overnight Wednesday, three people were killed and 12 injured after a mob of 300 pro-Russian protesters armed with stun grenades and firebombs tried to seize a National Guard base in the Black Sea port city of Mariupol.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said shots fired by servicemen in the base initially proved insufficient to deter the mob. There were no casualties among Ukrainian servicemen, the ministry said. At least 63 people involved in the attack were detained, but local media cited police as saying 38 were later released.
Residents were divided about the night’s events.
“Russia isn’t just exporting oil and gas, but also terrorism,” said 43-year-old resident Yevgeny Nechiporenko.
Yet passers-by berated Nechiporenko as he spoke, with one accusing him of being an “agent of the West.”
“We are willing to give up our lives so long as we don’t have to serve the fascists from Kiev,” said resident Anna Govorko.