Flowers and fury in tragedy-stricken Odessa

Women bring flowers in memory of people killed in recent street battles outside a trade union building, where a deadly fire occurred, in Odessa, on May 3, 2014. At least 42 people were killed in street battles between supporters and opponents of Russ
Women bring flowers in memory of people killed in recent street battles outside a trade union building, where a deadly fire occurred, in Odessa, on May 3, 2014. At least 42 people were killed in street battles between supporters and opponents of Russia in southern Ukraine that ended with pro-Russian protesters trapped in a flaming building, bringing the country closer to war. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

ODESSA (AFP) - Flowers, candles and photos of the dead pile up outside a charred building in the scenic Ukrainian port city of Odessa where anger simmers a day after brutal clashes claimed 42 lives.

Under a warm spring sun, several thousand gathered outside the blackened trade union building, where dozens perished in an inferno that marked the culmination of a day of confrontation.

"Yes, I'm Russian. I'm really Russian. Arrest me if you want. You can't stop me saying that these people were assassinated," screamed 53-year-old Elena Petrova at riot police, her eyes wide with rage.

The events leading up to the tragedy in Odessa, a well-known Black Sea city of more than one million people, are still not totally clear.

Clashes intially broke out between pro-Russian militants and supporters of Ukrainian unity that quickly turned deadly.

Several combatants, reportedly mainly on the pro-Russian side, barricaded themselves in the trade union building, which was set on fire as both sides traded petrol bombs.

Horrendous scenes ensued as people scrambled to escape the building. Most were overcome by fumes and others died after jumping from windows in a desperate bid to flee the inferno.

Local health officials said 42 died in total, four from gunshot wounds and 38 in the fire, most from asphyxiation.

There were 99 injuries, 10 from shrapnel wounds sustained by gunfire or grenades.

On Saturday, signs of the panicked attempts to stay alive by those trapped in the building were still visible.

Blinds knotted together to create a makeshift escape rope hung limply from the third floor; a ladder rested under a smashed window.

"They killed our young people. They call them terrorists but it's not true," sobbed Madam Elena. "They were just normal young people. They died for us. We'll never forgive, it's impossible."

A day later, a makeshift shrine has sprung up outside the squat four-storey building in the heart of Odessa.

People have placed flowers, candles, photos of the dead and other pictures, notably the famous shot of the Soviet flag flying over the German Reichstag to the backdrop of a Berlin in rubble.

"You are heroes who died for a noble cause," read one note.

Tensions are still running high and any word of support for the Western-backed leaders in Kiev is met with shouts and insults.

Several women became embroiled in a slanging match and had to be pulled apart.

One woman, a 31-year-old historian who gave her name only as Olga, said despite hostility from the crowd: "There were a lot of Russians from Russia in that building, not many people from here."

She then was forced to beat a hasty retreat under a hail of insults.

The one thing the pro-Russians and those backing the Kiev authorities can agree on is that it took far too long for the fire service to react to the blaze, which started out in only a few rooms.

Bogdan, 40, who claimed he took part in the running battles, said he wanted answers from the authorities.

"The fire station is less than a kilometre from here. The building is accessible from all sides. The firemen didn't get here for at least an hour," he complained.

"I don't agree with the pro-Russians but they shouldn't have died. The same goes for the police. There weren't enough of them and they did nothing to intervene. It's a scandal and the government in Kiev is to blame," he charged.

A toothless old lady walked by, carrying a note which read: "The US is the real killer." Underscoring the internal tensions that threaten to cleave this ex-Soviet republic apart, one man, his eyes covered by big dark glasses, rushed towards a bouquet of flowers wrapped in a blue and yellow ribbon, the national colours of Ukraine.

He untied the ribbon, hurled it to the ground and stamped on it. "It was them. Those are the fascists that did this... and that's all I'm going to say," he hissed between his teeth.