DONETSK - The Kyiv-appointed governor of Donetsk said in an interview with VOA that the Ukrainian government has not lost control of the troubled region.
Businessman Serhiy Taruta, a diminutive man who resembles Hollywood actor Woody Allen, rejects accusations that the Kyiv government isn’t doing enough when it comes to security in east Ukraine and says progress is being made in the government’s campaign to restore order.
The industrial region abutting the Russian border has seen government buildings being occupied by pro-Russian militiamen in more than a dozen towns.
Separatist leaders announced Thursday they plan to go ahead with a referendum to decide whether to secede from Ukraine – a referendum Kyiv politicians have denounced as contrived and illegal.
Last week, the interim leaders in Kyiv re-launched a military campaign to combat armed separatists, focusing most of their efforts on the flashpoint towns of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk a hundred kilometers north of Donetsk.
Watch related video report by Michael Eckels for VOA
But the campaign appears to be floundering and both rust belt towns still remain in rebel hands.
Taruta said the Kyiv government is fighting back.
“Kyiv constantly monitors, supports and increases the numbers of police in Donetsk region,” he said.
But Taruta admitted he worries about his own personal safety.
“I’m not crazy,” he said. “Of course I worry about my life but we can cope with our emotions and we understand that country’s destiny is more important than one individual’s life.”
Despite his assurances about general security in the region, international human rights workers here say the security situation is deteriorating fast.
A wave of abductions of pro-unity activists, journalists and local officials who refuse to go along with the separatists is striking widespread fear.
“This reminds me of the Chechnya conflict at the beginning,” saids a veteran human rights worker, who declined to be identified for this article, as they do not have permission from superiors to talk with the media.
Everyday there are reports of kidnappings.
On Thursday, police in Luhansk, a region neighboring Donetsk and also in tumult, confirmed that pro-Ukrainian activist Valeriy Salo was found dead in a burned-out car.
Salo’s family told police armed men arrived on Wednesday evening at their home in Donetsk and kidnapped the activist.
His is not the first death following abduction.
Forty-two-year-old policeman-turned-politician Volodymyr Rybak, a city councilor in the eastern Ukrainian town of Horlivka, near where dozens have gone missing in the past few weeks, was found dead on April 19.
He angered militants by trying to pull down on April 17 their Donetsk Republic flag atop a local municipal building to replace it with the Ukrainian banner.
Later he was bundled into a car by masked gunmen.
His wife, Elena Rybak, a medical doctor, told VOA that when she saw his body in the morgue in the nearby town of Slovyansk, his jaw was broken and there was a deep cut in the middle of his nose that she thinks was made with an axe.
The cause of death given in the autopsy report was a deep wound to the chest penetrating the lungs.
The report, detailing multiple deep stab wounds to the stomach, suggests Rybak was dumped still alive in a river near Slavyansk where he was later found.
The body of 19-year-old Kyiv pro-unity student Yuriy Propavko was found nearby.
On May 4, anti-Kyiv forces kidnapped half-a-dozen men six men from the town of Novogradovka—three were town councilors. All were severely beaten before they were freed a day later.
Separatists in Slovyansk hold at least 20 captives, according to international human rights workers, including the police chief of Kramatorsk, two pro-unity activists and the mayor of Slovyansk.
Earlier this month, seven European military observers were abducted but released several days later.
“Armed men affiliated with anti-Kiev forces have been snatching up activists, journalists, and local officials,” said Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch. “Some who’ve been released are bruised and injured, while the fate of dozens of others is not known.”
According to American reporter Simon Ostrovsky, who was held for two days in Slovyansk, captives are kept in the basement of the local Ukrainian security service building.
Ostrovsky said he was beaten during his captivity. His offense, according to Stella Khoraeva, the spokeswoman for the separatist leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the pro-Russian militant leader in Slovyansk, was that “he was not reporting in a correct way.”
Those abducted by separatists in Donetsk are detained on the fifth floor of the regional government building, the headquarters of the pro-Russian militancy in the city.
The eleven-floor building has been in rebel hands for weeks and has been turned into a fortress.
“The fifth floor is where they are holding abductees – and torturing them,” said an international human rights worker, who asked not to be named.