ODESSA, Ukraine – Outrage over the deaths of pro-Russian activists in riots in Odessa triggered new violence Sunday in the Black Sea port, where a mob of protesters stormed police headquarters and freed dozens of their jailed allies.
The activists had been jailed for their involvement in clashes Friday that killed more than 40 people – some died from gunshot wounds, but most from a fire that broke out in a trade union building. It was the worst violence in the Ukrainian crisis since more than 100 people died in Kiev in February, most of them shot by snipers.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk visited Odessa on Sunday to try to defuse the mounting tensions and hinted strongly that he saw Moscow’s hand in the unrest spreading through southeastern Ukraine.
Odessa is the major city between the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March, and the Moldovan separatist region of Trans-Dniester, where Russia has a military peacekeeping contingent.
Concerns are mounting that Moscow ultimately aims to take control of a huge swath of southeastern Ukraine from Trans-Dniester to Russian-dominated industrial areas in the east. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who calls the area historically Russian lands, has said he doesn’t want to send in troops but will if necessary to protect his country’s interests.
Alexei Pushkov, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament who often expresses Kremlin views on foreign policy, suggested Ukraine was destined to be split apart.
“Through the justification of arson, military operations and the killing of Russians in Ukraine, the Kiev government is destroying the basis for the existence of a united country,” Pushkov said on Twitter.
Yatsenyuk said Odessa police were being investigated for their failure to keep the peace during the riots and said he had ordered prosecutors to find “all instigators, all organizers and all those that under Russian leadership began a deadly attack on Ukraine and Odessa.”
Hours later, however, the police bowed to a mob of several hundred pro-Russian demonstrators who attacked their headquarters, smashing doors, windows and security surveillance cameras. Shortly after some of them managed to break into an inner courtyard, police released the detainees, who were swept up by the cheering, rain-dampened crowd that had been chanting “Freedom!”
The Interior Ministry said 67 activists had been released. It was not immediately clear whether any were still being held.
Late Sunday, about 300 supporters of the Kiev government gathered outside the regional police headquarters to demand that the armed pro-Russian demonstrators be punished. Carrying sticks and bats, they chanted, “Glory to Ukraine!”
“The Russians bought off our police,” said Andrei Shpak, who wore a balaclava to hide his face and carried a Ukrainian flag. “We’re angry that the separatists were set free and we demand that anyone who calls for the breakup of Ukraine be punished.”