DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) - “Donbas is in danger, we need you,” a volunteer shouts through a megaphone on a square in the centre of the eastern Ukraine rebel bastion Donetsk.
“Women accepted,” the man cries.
Separatist leaders in the eastern regions collectively known as Donbas have gone on a recruitment drive for their armed uprising against Kiev’s rule.
“We have achieved victories and more are to come,” boasted Denis Pushilin, a leader of the self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk” at a rally in Donetsk, the main city in the industrial belt on Russia’s border.
But he added: “We need strong men to protect our republic because civil war is raging.
“Many men are falling every day, so we need more,” he told the crowd of a few hundred people gathered in the shadow of a huge granite statue of Lenin.
In a small green tent just a few metres away, Andriy, Katia and Vadim signed up to fight “the fascists” in Kiev.
The formalities are dealt with quickly. The volunteers write their names and a phone numbers on a sheet of paper, add their signature, and then it’s just a matter of waiting for the rebels to come and collect them.
“Every day we have new recruits who want to go and fight, but there’s more today after the rally,” said one volunteer involved in the recruitment drive.
Donetsk’s “defence minister” Igor Strelkov, one of the top militia commanders in the flashpoint city of Slavyansk, took the unusual step of issuing a call for new fighters in a video posted on YouTube.
“If men are not willing then we have no other option than to call up women and take them into the militias,” said the 43-year-old.Strelkov, also known to the Ukrainian secret services as Russian military intelligence agent Igor Girkin, complained that many men came simply to seek weapons for protection from criminals at home.
Some media reports have also suggested the separatists are appealing for material help in the form of clothes, shoes and food.
Government forces launched an offensive five weeks ago to try to crush a rebellion it says is being fomented by Russia in an attempt to tear the country apart.
Fighting is reported almost every night at various levels of intensity in the towns and cities of eastern Ukraine, particularly the flashpoint of Slavyansk.
“I didn’t think I’d come but we have no choice because Kiev will not listen to us, I am ready to fight,” Olga said as she sat on a bench alongside Katia, whose husband has already joined the insurgents.
It is a familiar refrain among the rebels who say the interim government that took power in February after the ouster of the pro-Kremlin regime is full of nationalists bent on destroying the rights of the Russian-speaking minority.
“I was hoping that after the referendum Kiev would leave us in peace. I thought they were smart enough to understand but no, the troops are still here,” said Vadim, referring to the disputed independence votes in both Donetsk and neighbouring Lugansk a week ago.
“I’m frightened of fighting, but if we don’t do it, who will?” said the 47-year-old labourer and father of one.
The UN says around 130 people have been killed in the east since early April and has warned of an “alarming” deterioration in human rights, with cases of torture, targeted killings and abductions.
Vadim’s neighbour Andriy said he decided to enrol after a friend told him about an army massacre of a family wearing the black and orange ribbon of St George, a symbol of Russian military valour that has been adopted by the separatists.
“I want to fight, I want to protect my land and I am ready to leave everything to do it,” said the 51-year-old train driver, a small moustachioed man wearing a checked shirt and clutching a satchel to his chest.
A few minutes later, a truck rolled up and a handful of armed men took the small group away to an unknown destination “to test and prepare them,” according to the man in charge of recruitment.