DONETSK, UKRAINE— Hundreds of separatists rallied Sunday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, while a smaller group of unity supporters met with a Russian billionaire and opponent of President Putin.
A separatist group called the Donetsk People's Republic organized the rally that attracted several hundred supporters. Earlier this month, the group occupied two government buildings. It plans to organize an independence referendum on May 11, similar to the recent vote in Crimea that Russia used to justify its annexation of that region.
Many of the local residents who attended the rally say they do not trust the pro-Western government that came to power in Kyiv after president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted. Elena Gavrilina is a teacher in Donetsk.
“We want to organize a referendum to voice against our illegal power, against our illegal authorities. People are angry, very angry,” said Gavrilina.
The separatists later took over the Donetsk regional TV station.
In nearby Slovyansk, a group of observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were detained by insurgents.
The Ukrainian military has increased its presence in the region and Russia has massed thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border.
Donetsk separatist supporter Dmitri Litvinov says they are worried about Ukrainian troops, but would welcome Russia.
“It worries us that it is from the side of Ukraine. The Russians are our people, our blood. We are Russians ourselves. Donetsk is a Russian city.”
Also in Donetsk, a smaller group of residents who want to keep Ukraine united met with Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The long-time political opponent of President Vladimir Putin told the crowd they must let Russia know it will pay a price if it tries to intervene in the region.
“You ask me if Russia's elite understand there will be strong resistance to Russian troops, and the answer is no. They do not understand it,” said Khodorkovsky.
As hopes for a peaceful settlement appear to dwindle, tensions in the region continue to escalate.