DONETSK, Ukraine – The Interior Ministry headquarters in eastern Ukraine’s largest city fell to pro-Russia separatists Tuesday after a five-hour battle that erupted hours after the Ukrainian president ended a shaky, 10-day-old cease-fire.
In Tuesday’s clashes, rebels fought for more ground, and badly trained and disorganized government troops seemed incapable of crushing the mutiny.
President Petro Poroshenko had called a unilateral cease-fire to try to persuade the rebels to lay down their weapons and hold peace talks. Some of the rebels signed on to the break in fighting as tentative negotiations began, but each side accused the other of repeated violations. When he ended the cease-fire, the president said the rebels were not serious about peace.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that substantive talks with representatives in eastern Ukraine had failed to start in earnest and that the cease-fire announced by Poroshenko amounted to an ultimatum to the rebels to disarm.
The Russian leader also denounced the Western threat of sanctions as blackmail, adding that Moscow wouldn’t accept “ultimatums and mentor’s tone.”
Europe must not allow “any unconstitutional coups and interference into the domestic affairs of sovereign states” and should steer clear of “inciting radical and neo-Nazi forces” to avoid destabilization, Putin said.
Russia has cast February’s ouster of Ukraine’s former pro-Moscow president following massive protests as a coup conducted by radical nationalists and neo-Nazis.
In Donetsk, the capital of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, many streets were deserted, and gunfire filled the air Tuesday as rebels besieged the headquarters of the regional Interior Ministry. The rebels eventually captured the compound, leaving the body of a plainclothes police officer outside.
In Kiev, the interior minister said Ukrainian forces had repelled the rebel attack in Donetsk, but an AP journalist on the ground saw that clearly was not the case.
It was not clear what prompted the rebel attack on the Interior Ministry building, which houses regional police, who have peacefully coexisted with the rebels even though they still officially answer to the central government in Kiev.
The Interfax news agency quoted Sergei Kavtaradze, a spokesman for the insurgents in Donetsk, as saying the attack was launched by militants from the neighboring Luhansk region. There was no way to immediately confirm his claim.