Pro-Russian militants ignore settlement, continue occupation of buildings in Ukraine

Pro-Russian­ militants, boasting that they do not take orders from diplomats in Washington or Moscow, refused to end their armed occupation of a dozen government buildings across eastern Ukraine on Friday, upending hopes for a quick end to the standoff.

The defiance came just hours after Russia, the European Union, Ukraine and the United States sought to de-escalate the conflict with an agreement signed in Geneva urging restraint on all sides and calling on the pro-Russia activists to lay down their baseball bats and molotov cocktails and walk away from their barricades at the city halls and police stations.

At a news conference Friday on the top floor of the regional government offices they stormed last weekend, Denis Pushilin, a leader of a group calling itself the Donetsk People’s Republic, said he and his men had no intention of abandoning their positions as long as the new government in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, still stood.

“It is an illegal junta,” Anatoliy Onischenko, another separatist leader, said of the Kiev government. “They should leave their buildings first.”

Standing before young men with black balaclavas over their faces, Pushilin said that nobody from the pro-Russia groups in Ukraine were at the negotiating table in Geneva and that, because they were not consulted, they had no obligation to do anything.

Armed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine said they are not bound by the internationally brokered agreement ordering them to disarm and end their occupation. (Reuters)

The Donetsk People’s Republic flag, sporting a Russian-style eagle, flew on top of the building. The protesters were camped in the offices and sprawled on the floors. Water came from fire hoses; the cafeteria was brimming with donated food, and someone had set up a makeshift infirmary.

Ukraine’s central government appeared to take a conciliatory approach late Friday, when in a joint televised address, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called for national unity and urged people to refrain from violence over the Easter weekend.

Both men said they would support a constitutional change to decentralize power and allow for more local control, giving regional governments their pick of an official language — a central demand of Russian-speaking protesters in the east.

“The Ukrainian government is prepared to conduct comprehensive constitutional reform which will strengthen the powers of the regions,” Yatsenyuk said. “We will strengthen the special status of the Russian language and protect this language.

One of the new government’s first acts in parliament after ousting former president Viktor Yanukovych in February was to deny regional governments the power to make Russian an official language. The legislation was later vetoed, but the damage had been done in the eyes of Russian speakers, who feared second-class citizenship in the new order.

In another sign that Kiev is searching for compromise that would calm pro-Russia activists, the Ukrainian presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been imprisoned by the Yanukovych government, made a surprise appearance Friday in Donetsk, vowing to negotiate with the breakaway protesters.

“I want myself to understand their demands, what they expect, whose interests they represent,” she said. “I hope these negotiations will serve a constructive role and that we can find a way to restore harmony between the west and east of Ukraine.”

Yatsenyuk said Friday that parliament was ready to pass a bill that would grant amnesty to protesters who vacate occupied buildings and put down their weapons.

But he said his government did not harbor “unreasonable” expectations that the stalemate would quickly end.

“Russia had no other choice but to sign the statement and condemn extremism,” he said. “Having signed this statement, Russia effectively asked these ‘peaceful protesters’ with Kalashnikov assault rifles and air-defense missile systems to immediately disarm and surrender their weapons.”

On Thursday, Ukrainian forces engaged pro-Russian separatists in what appeared to be the most intense battle yet in restive eastern Ukraine, killing three militants and wounding 13 after what the Interior Ministry described as a siege of a military base.

It is not clear exactly what the pro-Russia militants want.

Some leaders said they would like to see Yanukovych, who is from the Donetsk region, returned to power; others have called him a coward and a traitor. A few men said they wanted to see oligarchs arrested, salaries raised and corruption ended.

Many of the activists wanted Ukrainian troops to leave the region. It wasn’t even certain that they wanted to become part of Russia; some said they just wanted Russia’s protection from a government in Kiev that they view with hostility and suspicion.

Outside of Donetsk, in the gritty industrial city of Gorlovka, protesters kept vigil at a barricade of tires, pallets and concertina wire outside the city police station, whose windows were smashed in a confrontation this week.

“Why would we leave? Who told us to leave?” said one of the leaders of the men, Alexander, a shop owner who declined to give his last name.

“Nobody in Geneva who signed this agreement gives a damn about us. They’re interested in gas deals, in coal, in drilling. They don’t care about us,” Alexander said. “We’re not just poor. We’re completely poor, and nobody cares what poor people think.”

As he talked, an old man stood patiently at his elbow. “What do you want, father?” Alexander asked. “Are you hungry?” When the elderly man nodded yes, Alexander said, “See?”

The pro-Russia protesters who massed nearby at the Gorlovka city hall on Thursday had vanished, but they left behind a mystery.

One of the city council deputies, Vladimir Rybak, who opposes the pro-Russia separatists and wants Ukraine to remain undivided, came back to work to take down the Donetsk People’s Republic flag and replace it with Ukraine’s.

Asked to address the gathering, he was jostled by the crowd, and then, according to his wife, Elena, and a video posted on a local news Web site, a man in camouflage and a black mask chased Rybak down the street. He was caught, hustled into a car and has not been heard from since. The crowd shouted, “Throw him in the trunk!”

“He was kidnapped,” said his wife. “I am very scared, because previously he was a policeman, and it would have taken a lot to force him into a vehicle.”

Asked who would have taken her husband, Elena Rybak said: “I don’t know. There’s a lot of Russians around. There are others. There are lots of people who would want to get rid of him.”

Alex Ryabchyn contributed to this report.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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