ODESSA, UKRAINE —
Ukraine's government says 32 pro-Russian activists who died during a fire in a building they had taken over early this month in Odessa may have been killed by chloroform poisoning and not flames or smoke.
The trade unions building at Kulikovo Field bears the scars of a raging fire, and the communist flag raised by pro-Russian protesters still flies on the roof, behind a Ukrainian flag placed at half-staff to mark their deaths.
Inside, the intensity of the fire is apparent, as are the barricades the pro-Russian protesters used to block the doors that helped fuel it.
But photos of the dead, too graphic to show, indicate some of them died in unusual positions, apparently not trying to flee or protect themselves from the fire. And many rooms were not burned, and some exits are clear.
On Monday, Ukraine's deputy interior minister said the victims may have died from chloroform poisoning, and the investigation into how that happened is continuing.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed outrage, and accused Ukrainian authorities of lying to cover up the involvement of foreign mercenaries.
Odessa's regional vice-governor Zoya Kazanzhy said in a VOA interview that there is no tolerance for such interference.
"My attitude is obviously extremely negative." she said. "At high levels, we are constantly saying this is our business. Unfortunately, I think the political conditions and the behavior of senior Russian officials is causing a situation where we will hardly be able to be brothers and sisters, and friendly nations, in the foreseeable future."
Journalist Oksana Butuk says the Russian approach will backfire, even among Odessa's pro-Russian activists.
"People who are still gathering at Kulikovo Field always say they are there because they want to be there and that Russia has nothing to do with it," Butuk said. "And when Russia tries to get involved, people get aggressive because they are always saying Russia is not involved."
People who still come to pay their respects at the Kulikovo Field building are emotional, but even they don't talk about seceding from Ukraine like activists in some areas farther east do.
"Ukraine is Ukraine," said market worker Marina Perelman. "No one was going to separate it in the way the media shows it, mostly national media. Odessa was never for the separation of Ukraine."
Monday's revelations are fueling doubt and anger at the authorities, but Vice-Governor Kazanzhy doubts they will spark more violence.
"The most important thing is to know the truth of what happened because it's the only thing that could somehow, if not reconcile the city, at least calm people down, because the truth is always calming," she said.
She and the rest of the new regional government are focused on completing the investigation in the hopes that speculation about the horrors of May 2 doesn't lead to more of the same.