KIEV (AFP/Reuters) - Ukraine's embattled prime minister on Monday accused Russia of trying to "dismember" his country by plotting seizures of government buildings in eastern regions that are seeking to break away from Kiev.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's latest volley against Ukraine's giant neighbour came as his top lieutenants fanned out across the heavily Russified eastern swathes of the country trying to regain a semblance of control.
Thousands of irate pro-Russian activists broke through police lines on Sunday and occupied the administration buildings in the big industrial cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk as well as the headquarters of the regional security service in Lugansk. AFP reporters saw pro-Russian activists leave the Kharkiv government headquarters on Monday morning even while a few hundred of their supporters continued to rally outside. But the situation in the other two cities remained tense amid unconfirmed reports that pro-Russians had also stormed the security building in Donetsk.
Saying Russian troops were within a 30km zone from the Ukrainian border, Mr Yatseniuk told a government meeting: “An anti-Ukrainian plan is being put into operation... under which foreign troops will cross the border and seize the territory of the country". “We will not allow this,” he said.
Pro-Russian protesters in the east seized official buildings in three cities – Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk – on Sunday night, demanding that referendums be held on whether to join Russia. A similar move preceded a Russia-backed takeover of Crimea in March followed by annexation of the peninsula by Russia.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Monday the main regional administration building in Kharkiv had been cleared of“separatists”.
But police said protesters occupying the state security building in Luhansk had seized weapons and highway police had closed off roads into the city. “Unknown people who are in the building have broken into the building’s arsenal and have seized weapons,” a police statement said. Nine people had been hurt in the disturbances in Luhansk.
Mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine has seen a sharp rise in tension since Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s overthrow in February and the advent of an interim government in Kiev that wants closer ties with Europe.
Russia has branded the new leadership in Kiev illegitimate and has annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, citing threats to its Russian-speaking majority – a move that caused the biggest standoff between Moscow and the West since the end of the Cold War.
The protesters appeared to be responding in part to Mr Yanukovich, who fled to Russia after he was ousted and who on March 28 issued a public call for each of Ukraine’s regions to hold a referendum on its status inside the country.
Separately, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said a Russian marine had shot and killed a Ukrainian naval officer in Crimea on Sunday night.
The 33-year-old officer, who was preparing to leave Crimea, was shot twice in officers’ quarters in the locality of Novofedorovka. It was not clear why the Russian marine had opened fire.
Mr Yatseniuk said that though much of the unrest had died down in eastern Ukraine in the past month there remained about 1,500 “radicals” in each region who spoke with “clear Russian accents" and whose activity was being coordinated through foreign intelligence services. But he said Ukrainian authorities had drawn up a plan to handle the crisis.
“We have a clear action plan,” he said, adding that senior officials would head to the towns concerned.
Avakov on Sunday accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of orchestrating the “separatist disorder” and promised that disturbances would be brought under control without violence.
Russia has been pushing internationally a plan proposing the“federalisation” of Ukraine in which regions of the country of 46 million would have broad powers of autonomy.
Ukraine, while drawing up its own blueprint of constitutional changes for ‘de-centralisation’ in which smaller municipalities would be able to develop their own areas by retaining a portion of state taxes raised, says the Russian plan is aimed at breaking up the country.
Referring to the Russian plan, Mr Yatseniuk said: “It is an attempt to destroy Ukrainian statehood, a script which has been written in the Russian Federation, the aim of which is to divide and destroy Ukraine and turn part of Ukraine into a slave territory under the dictatorship of Russia,” he said.
“This is not going to happen,” he said.
“I appeal to the people and the elites of the east. Our common responsibility is to preserve the country and I am sure that no-one wants to be under a neighbouring country. We have our country. Let’s keep it,” he said.
Mr Yatsenyuk said Russia had helped orchestrate the occupations in order to find an excuse for a full-out invasion that would punish Ukraine for February's ouster of its Moscow-backed president and decision to seek a political and economic alliance with the West.
"There is a plan to destabilise the situation, a plan for foreign forces to cross the border and seize the territory of the country, which we will not allow," Mr Yatsenyuk told a government meeting.
"This scenario is written by the Russian Federation and its only purpose is to dismember Ukraine."
The unrest comes with Ukraine's borders seeing a massing of Russian troops who had earlier seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and the economy in tatters after decades of mismanagement and government theft.
Several eastern regions now want to stage referendums on joining Kremlin rule when Ukraine holds snap presidential polls on May 25 that feature two frontrunners who both want to tie the vast country's future to Europe and break its historic dependence on Russia.
Moscow is now lobbying for Ukraine to be transformed into a federation that allows eastern regions in the vast nation of 46 million to adopt Russian as a second state language and overrule some decision coming from Kiev.
The Kremlin has argued the changes were needed because ethnic Russians had allegedly been coming under increasing attack from ultranationalist forces that helped the new leaders ride a wave of anti-government protests to power.
But Washington and its European Union allies fear that Russia - having already annexed Crimea last month - is using the federation idea as an excuse to further splinter Ukraine by granting the Kremlin veto powers over Kiev's regional policies.
The new Kiev government approved a draft reform plan last week that would grant more powers to the regions in line with Western wishes but stopped well short of creating the federation sought by Russia.
And Mr Yatsenyuk on Monday called federalisation a dangerous idea aimed at ruining Ukraine.
"Any call toward federalisation is an attempt to destroy the Ukrainian state," said Mr Yatsenyuk.
He added that the Kremlin's ambition was to turn "a part of Ukraine into a slave territory that was under the diktat of the Russian Federation".