LUHANSK, UKRAINE —
Moscow-backed separatists seized the prosecutor's office in the town of Luhansk, just hours before one of the top leaders of the pro-Russian militants was released from custody by the Ukrainian government. The freeing of Pavel Gubarev appears to be the first step in tentative talks between the separatists and politicians in Kyiv.
Across eastern Ukraine, the pro-Russian insurgency gathered momentum Wednesday with Moscow-backed separatists mounting actions and seizing more government buildings.
In Luhansk, 20 gunmen stormed the regional prosecutor's office and commanded staff to leave, instructing them not to remove documents or computers.
The self-proclaimed “people’s governor” of the Luhansk region, Valery Bolotov, told VOA he ordered his fighters to seize the building because the government in Kyiv has been using the prosecutors against them. By seizing the building, he said he was showing the Ukrainian government how serious the separatists are in their demands to split from Ukraine.
The self-styled mayor of Luhansk region, Valery Bolotov, answers journalists' questions in the seized regional government headquarters in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, May 5, 2014.
Earlier, Ukrainian officials announced they were opening three major criminal cases against Bolotov, a former paratrooper, whose supporters already occupy the regional governor’s office and the local security services building.
Along with separatists in the neighboring region of Donetsk, Bolotov was ready to hold a controversial snap referendum on secession this weekend. He said all people will come to vote and everything is fully prepared.
But the May 11 referendum -- which many feared would thrust Ukraine into a full-fledged civil war -- is now in doubt.
In a surprise turn of events, Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday urged separatists to delay the vote in order to create the conditions for more negotiations. His request came after Kyiv authorities freed top separatist leader Pavel Gubarev in a prisoner exchange. He has been held in the Ukrainian capital for several weeks.
The reaction in Kyiv and among separatists in eastern Ukraine has so far been a combination of suspicion and mistrust.
Pro-unity Ukrainians in the east fear Putin is seeking to manipulate the situation even more than they say he has been doing. And they express disappointment at the freeing of Gubarev, fearing that any negotiations will fail and the separatist uprising will become unstoppable.
Analysts say Kyiv has little choice but to try to kickstart a dialogue because its military campaign to get back full control of the neighboring Donetsk and Luhansk regions is failing.
Pro-unity activists here aren’t the only ones disappointed by all the political maneuvering.
Andrei, a 37-year-old father, says he always saw himself as a Ukrainian patriot, but after last week week’s fighting in the Black Sea town of Odessa, where at least 40 pro-Russian separatists were killed in a fire, he doesn’t know what to think. He said separatists are divided over the idea of delaying the referendum, but none of them trusts the Kyiv government.