DONETSK - An appeal from Ukraine’s prime minister for unity is being ignored in the country’s troubled southeast, which is fast plunging into general disorder and lawlessness.
Police in towns and cities across the region are withdrawing from the streets, leaving local residents fearful and unprotected. The rule of gunmen and thugs is for the most part currently the only law.
“This is not a good time for us,” said salesman Sergey Layrih. “There are no police. They have just disappeared and crime is on the rise.”
Layrih’s wife and two-and-half-year-old daughter used to walk twice a day in a park near their home in downtown Donetsk. But now they only go out in the morning and even then they are nervous.
Speaking Sunday to journalists in the southern port city of Odessa where more than 40 died last Friday in clashes and a fire, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk acknowledged the rising lawlessness.
Still, he insisted “we haven't entirely lost control.”
Odessa, a southern sea port most Ukrainians associate with balmy summer vacations, remains tense. A crowd of around a thousand people stormed a police headquarters Sunday gaining the release of nearly 70 detained pro-Russian activists.
Eyewitnesses say the police did little to counter the attack on their headquarters and were quickly persuaded to take down the Ukrainian flag.
Next days seen as crucial
According to Yatsenyuk, the next few days will prove crucial.
“Much will depend on the local population, whether they support peace and security," he said.
Security forces loyal to the government of Kyiv are making slow going of their efforts to wrest control from Moscow-backed separatists over two towns north of Donetsk.
Ukrainian military units have not tried to advance into the center Slovyansk, a city of 130,000 people. According to local residents, they are not in control of all separatist checkpoints around the outside of the city.
In Kramatorsk, there has been more progress. Pro-Kyiv forces took back the town’s main police station.
But the small advances are not stopping trouble springing up elsewhere in the region
As Ukrainian forces progress on one front, separatists seize or attack other municipal buildings in other towns. And at times, when security forces look likely to make major advances, they appear to halt or take a step back.
Ukrainian security forces lost Monday another military helicopter – their third to be shot down by Moscow-backed pro-Russian separatists in the last week.
The military moves do little to gain public trust.
And for little territorial gain so far, the government’s campaign is deepening the anger of local residents, including 24-year-old secretary Nadin.
“They had a lot of guns, machine guns, they shoot like this (mimicking gunfire) to all house, to all people, and my house is fully damaged, all windows,” she said.
A short distance away a truck burned, choking people with acrid black smoke.
It was hit in the crossfire in the Slovyansk suburb of Semenovka where a two hour-hour battle raged Monday.
The body of the truck driver was covered by a yellow tarpaulin placed in front a café owned by Nadin’s mother.
He was one of six killed, including a Ukrainian soldier, in the skirmish, according to local doctors. The Ukrainian Ministry of Interior says four people were killed Monday in the fighting and 300 wounded.
Nadin’s house was hit with the windows on one side shattered, the siding badly damaged. Nadin and her family took cover as best they could.
“I think after this shooting a lot of people will afraid of our government and I think they will ask for help to Russia,” she said.
Fifty-five-year-old Igor, a separatist fighter, said he thinks the time for talking is over and dialogue and negotiation is impossible. It would be better to be with Russia now, he said.