KIEV, Ukraine: The mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city was shot in the back Monday and hundreds of men attacked a peaceful pro-Ukraine rally with batons, bricks and stun grenades, wounding dozens as tensions soared in Ukraine’s volatile east.
One presidential candidate said the mayor was deliberately targeted in an effort to destabilize the entire city of Kharkiv, a hub of 1.5 million people.
Russia’s defense chief meanwhile assured U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a telephone call that Russia would not invade Ukraine, the Pentagon said.
Armed insurgents tacitly backed by Moscow are seeking more autonomy in eastern Ukraine — and possibly even independence or annexation with Russia. Ukraine’s acting government and the West have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest, which they fear Moscow could use as a pretext for an invasion.
Ratcheting up the pressure, President Barack Obama’s government levied new sanctions on seven Russian officials and 17 companies with links to President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. The U.S. also revoked licenses for some high-tech items that could be used by the Russian military.
In Brussels, the European Union moved to add 15 more officials to its Russian sanctions list to protest Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine. That decision, reached by the ambassadors to the EU’s 28 nations, was being formally confirmed by the EU’s governments, officials told the Associated Press.
In the eastern city of Donetsk, about 1,000 demonstrators carrying Ukrainian flags marched through the streets to hold a pro-Ukrainian rally Monday night. They were attacked by several hundred armed men shouting “Russia!”
Police attempted to hold the pro-Russia men back but then largely stood aside as dozens of protesters were battered.
Hennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, was shot in the back Monday morning while cycling on the outskirts of the city, his office said. He underwent surgery and was reported by the hospital to be in “grave but stable” condition.
Kernes’ friend and former Kharkiv governor, Mykhailo Dobkin, said the attackers wanted to kill Kernes to destabilize the city.
“If you want to know my opinion, they were shooting not at Kernes, but at Kharkiv,” he said.
Dobkin is among several candidates running in Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election, which the interim government says Russia is trying to derail.
The increasingly ruthless pro-Russia insurgency, meanwhile, is turning to an ominous new tactic: kidnapping. About 40 people are being held hostage in makeshift jails in Slovyansk — including journalists, pro-Ukraine activists and seven military observers.