By Peter Leonard
DONETSK, UKRAINE: Pro-Moscow activists barricaded inside government buildings in eastern Ukraine proclaimed their regions independent Monday and called for a referendum on seceding from Ukraine — an ominous echo of the events that led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The Ukrainian government accused Russia of stirring up the unrest and tried to flush the assailants from some of the seized buildings, setting off fiery clashes in one city. Russia, which has tens of thousands of troops massed along the border, sternly warned Ukraine against using force.
In Washington, the U.S. said any move by Russia into eastern Ukraine would be a “very serious escalation” that could bring further sanctions. White House spokesman Jay Carney said there was strong evidence that some of the pro-Russian protesters were hired and were not local residents.
At the same time, the U.S. announced that Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with top diplomats from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union in a new push to ease tensions. The meeting, the first such four-way talks since the crisis erupted, will take place in the next 10 days, the State Department said.
Pro-Russian activists who seized the provincial administrative building in the city of Donetsk over the weekend announced the formation Monday of the independent Donetsk People’s Republic.
They also called for a referendum on the secession of the Donetsk region, to be held by May 11, said the Russian news agency Interfax.
A similar action was taken in another Russian-speaking city in the east, Kharkiv, where pro-Moscow activists proclaimed a “sovereign Kharkiv People’s Republic,” Interfax said.
It quoted the regional police as saying they later cleared the regional administration building, and the activists responded by throwing firebombs and rocks at the windows and setting tires ablaze. Local news reports said that the pro-Russian crowds then recaptured the building.
Kharkiv Mayor Gennady Kernes said the activists also took control of the TV tower in Kharkiv and demanded it resume broadcasting banned Russian channels. But police said the assailants later left.
Viktoria Syumar, a deputy head of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council, said Ukrainian special forces had driven pro-Russian assailants from Ukraine’s Security Service headquarters in Donetsk.
The activists who occupied the government headquarters building in Donetsk blocked off the entrance with 6-foot barricades of car tires lined with razor wire.
Inside, dozens of people — almost all men, many of them wearing balaclavas and carrying clubs — stood around in groups. They refused to speak to journalists about their immediate plans.