Pro-Russian militants stormed a Ukrainian police station in Odessa on Sunday and freed nearly 70 fellow activists as Ukraine’s prime minister blamed police corruption there for dozens of deaths in rioting on Friday.
About 300 pro-Russian activists forced their way into the Odessa police station, gathering in the courtyard, while about a thousand more surrounded the modern complex.
"Russians won't abandon their own!" militants chanted as they smashed windows and broke down the gate at the compound, where comrades had been held since Friday's mayhem.
A spokesman for the regional police said about 170 people were initially detained after pro-Russian activists clashed with supporters of Ukrainian unity on Friday.
Odessa police said 67 activists had been released.
As rebellion simmered, questions were raised about the ability of the army as well as police to confront an uprising Kyiv said is backed by Moscow and led in the field by Russian special forces - an accusation the Kremlin denies.
Bank suspends operations
Ukraine's largest bank has temporarily closed branches in separatist-held Donetsk and Luhansk, saying it could no longer carry out cash transactions in regions riddled with crime that could “threaten the lives” of its workers.
Pro-Russian separatists have targeted Privatbank after its co-owner, billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, was appointed by the new government head of the nearby Dnipropetrovsk region and swiftly announced a $10,000 bounty on the heads of Russian “saboteurs.”
Rebels, who say they want independence from Kyiv, set fire to a branch in the town of Mariupol in the Donetsk region late on Saturday and raided a security truck last week in Horlivka, south of the region's main rebel stronghold.
“In the current circumstances we cannot and do not have the right to make people go to work in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where armed people break into bank branches and seize security vans in the towns,” Privatbank said in a statement.
Kolomoisky, Ukraine's fourth richest man according to Forbes magazine, has become a hate figure for the pro-Russian separatists.
Critical of police
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, speaking in Odessa on Sunday, accused Russia of engineering Friday's clashes there that led to the deaths of more than 40 pro-Russian activists in a blazing building.
But he was pointedly critical of the police.
Yatsenyuk suggested the Odessa police were more interested in the fruits of corruption than maintaining order. Had they done their job, he said, ``these terrorist organizations would have been foiled.”
Odessa's police chief was fired on Saturday and Yatsenyuk said other changes in leadership were planned.
“The prosecutor's office is to investigate everyone - starting with the chief of police, his deputies and every single police officer," Yatsenyuk said, according to the BBC.
Russia, which annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in March, said it would try to organize talks between Kyiv and representatives from the southeast: "It appears that without external help the Kyiv authorities are not capable of establishing such a dialogue," Russian deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin told Rossiya-24 television.
Germany's foreign minister also said he was pressing for a second international conference at Geneva to bring Russia and Ukraine together with the United States and European Union to settle the dispute.
Moscow and Kyiv accuse each other of wrecking a four-way accord to end the conflict signed at Geneva on April 17.
Elsewhere on Sunday, witnesses and experts said several dozen Russian planes including what appeared to be strategic bombers and fighter jets have been spotted in the sky above the Moscow-controlled peninsula of Crimea.
According to Russian media, President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to visit Crimea on Friday after overseeing the main military parade on the Red Square when Russia celebrates its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
A local aviation expert told AFP on Sunday that he had sighted a number of planes over the peninsula's main city of Simferopol on Saturday, including supersonic heavy strategic bombers and heavy military transport aircraft.
The expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had also seen refueling tankers and MiG-29 jets.
Worst fighting since February
Friday's clashes were the deadliest since Moscow-oriented president Viktor Yanukovich was forced to flee in February and pro-Russian militants launched uprisings in the industrial east. They also marked the first serious disorder beyond eastern areas since Yanukovich fell, heralding possible trouble for Kyiv.
Kyiv is organizing a presidential election for May 25. However, as things stand, it would have trouble conducting the vote in many parts of the east, a circumstance that would allow Russia to declare any government emerging as bereft of legitimacy.
Separatists who have declared a "People's Republic of Donetsk” are planning a referendum on secession on May 11.
The Ukraine army suffered an embarrassing upset near the eastern town of Mariupol when soldiers at a checkpoint accepted food offered to them by a group presenting themselves as public-spirited citizens. Such donations have been common in recent weeks, as Ukraine's forces suffer a serious lack of resources.
The food had been laced with a sleeping potion. Once incapacitated, the soldiers were then bundled off along with their weapons, prompting long talks to free them. The five soldiers, taken prisoner on Saturday, were released on Sunday.
The capital Kyiv has remained quiet since the protests that forced Yanukovich to flee to Russia. But celebrations this week marking the anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War Two could be a source of tension.
Some information for this report provided by AFP, Reuters, AP.