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Ukrainian firefighters become target of pro-Russian militia

A woman brings flowers to the Trade Union building in the South-Ukrainian city of Odessa, Ukraine, May 4 2014. At least 31 people died in a fire that broke out during clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters at the Trade Union building in Odessa. Apart from the fire death toll, the fighting left at least four people dead and 40 injured, police said. EPA/ALEXEY FURMAN

The death of dozens of men and women in a fire in Odessa on Friday may end up being one of the many pivotal moments in Ukraine's ongoing crisis. While it's still not exactly clear what happened (the BBC has one good rundown), the basic facts of the incident don't seem to be in dispute: a pro-Ukrainian mob attacked tent camp set up by pro-Russian activists, which forced them to flee to a nearby trade union building, which in turn was set on fire. Thirty-one men and women died, either from smoke inhalation or after jumping from the windows.

It's a tragic moment, and one that may sow broader discontent for weeks to come. But in the eastern city of Donetsk on Monday, something else rather strange happened: Firefighters were reportedly being detained by the pro-Russia Donetsk People's Republic.

Associated Press reporter Pete Leonard was on the scene, where he tweeted the following account:

Leonard also pointed to photographs that appeared to show the firefighters being detained:

Pro-Russian supporters lead an unidentified man in front of the occupied regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine, 05 May 2014. EPA/MAXIM SHIPENKOV

There's little information about what exactly has happened to the firefighters for now, so it may well be a misunderstanding or isolated error. Those detained may well be released soon.

But the apparent situation – pro-Russian separatists detaining fire crews just days after dozens of pro-Russian separatists die in a fire – shows just how chaotic things have become. As Leonard notes, even other members of the Donetsk People's Republic are fuming about the move.

It also shows how confused the role of state workers such as firefighters and police officers has become in Ukraine. On Monday, Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote a post on Facebook that said that police action in Odessa had been "hideous, possibly criminal" and that the entire leadership in the city had been dismissed. On Sunday, a pro-Russian crowd had stormed a police headquarters and freed a number of detained activists.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.



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