ODESSA, Ukraine: Hundreds of pro-Russian demonstrators stormed police headquarters in Odessa Sunday and won the release of 67 people detained after deadly clashes in the Ukrainian port city.
More than 40 people died in the riots two days earlier, some from gunshot wounds, but most in a horrific fire that tore through a trade union building.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who hinted strongly that he saw Moscow’s hand in the unrest spreading through southeastern Ukraine, visited Odessa Sunday to try to defuse the mounting tensions.
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 Russia ultimately aims to take control of a huge swath of Ukraine from Trans-Dniester to 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.
Yatsenyuk said police were being investigated for their failure to maintain order and he had charged prosecutors with “finding all instigators, all organizers and all those that under Russian leadership began a deadly attack on Ukraine and Odessa.”
Earlier in the day, hundreds of pro-Russian protesters gathered in front of the scorched trade union building to honor those who died in Friday’s blaze. Some draped a Russian tricolor flag on the face of the building.
By mid-afternoon, a group of several hundred people marched to the police station to demand the release of fellow activists jailed over their involvement in the unrest. They attacked security surveillance cameras and smashed windows. Shortly after some of them broke into an inner courtyard police yielded to the crowd’s demands and released the prisoners, as the crowd cheered.
The Interior Ministry said 67 activists had been freed.
Yatsenyuk’s visit came as Ukrainian authorities renewed their push to quell a pro-Russian insurgency in the east. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement on his Facebook page that an “antiterrorist operation” was being executed in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, the latest flashpoint for unrest.
Kramatorsk saw a standoff Saturday that culminated in pro-Russian insurgents setting buses alight to ward off attacks. Russian state television has reported 10 deaths, including two among government forces, during clashes in Kramatorsk so far. Those figures could not be independently confirmed.
By midday Sunday, however, there was little sign of movement, from either government or insurgents on the ground. The burned-out shells of trolleybuses and a minibus lay in the road untouched.
Efforts to counteract the insurgency have focused mostly on Slovyansk, where Ukrainian authorities are seeking to form a security cordon around the eastern city.
European military observers who were held more than a week by insurgents in Slovyansk walked free Saturday but the city’s self-declared “people’s mayor” – Vyacheslav Ponomarev – has boasted that he holds an unspecified number of other captives, believed to include Ukrainian journalists, activists and politicians.