MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - Violence is flaring and anger rising in eastern Ukraine, less than 24 hours before a controversial referendum calling for a yes-or-no vote on whether to break away from Ukraine and form separate "people’s republics."
Explosions from an abandoned armored vehicle sent people in Mariupol scurrying to safety.
They are afraid of a repeat of Friday’s fierce fighting when daylong clashes between Ukrainian security forces and separatists that left at least 20 dead. An inebriated separatist militant had just torched the tracked infantry vehicle, unconcerned about ammunition on board exploding.
Nerves are frayed in this southern industrial area, one of dozens of cities in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists are trying to follow Crimea’s lead and break away from Ukraine.
The city has seen violent flare-ups before, but the latest clashes were the worst. Residents who came out Saturday to view the burned-out remains of the city's administration building and central police station seethed with anger, nearly all of it directed at the government in Kyiv, and at Ukrainian ultranationalists from the shadowy group Right Sector, who are accused of joining the battles.
Buinessman Igor says fighting broke out during a parade celebrating Victory Day, the May 9 anniversary of the Soviet Army’s defeat of Nazi Germany. He says he headed for the police station after hearing gunshots, and found about 2,000 protesters gathered there.
Army snipers shot at locals, according to Igor, who saw at least three people wounded by gunshots.
Videos posted online and others seen by VOA appeared to show nervous Ukrainian soldiers firing on unarmed protesters. In other images, armed protesters are firing at the troops. Who shot first is not clear.
Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said 20 separatists were killed and four were captured during the battle to restore government control over the police station.
But locals have a different version.
Artyom Sorokolit, a human-rights worker in the city, says the police defected to the separatists’ side, so the army attack was directed at both the separatists and local police.
Pro-Russia militants rebuilt barricades Saturday and returned to the local administration building, now half destroyed by fire. The administration building has changed hands twice in the recent days' fighting.
Mariupol is not alone in seeing an uptick in violence. In Donetsk, armed separatists raided office of the International Red Cross Friday night. They stole medicines and seized six workers, five of them Ukrainians. The Red Cross workers were freed later.
In some eastern towns, banks have been attacked and abductions are on the rise in many areas.
Fighting also flared overnight in the flashpoint town of Slovyansk, 100 kilometers north of Donestk.
Locals are critical of the tactics being used by the Kyiv government as it seeks to restore its authority over the region.
The Ukrainian government's off-and-on counter-insurgency operations seem to rely on hit-and-run tactics that are not making substantial gains against the separatists but have further inflamed public opinion.
Mariupol businessman Igor says during weeks of agitation and clashes, most people in the city hoped that Ukraine woiuld stay united. But the two major battles this month - in Odessa, where scores of poeple were killed on May 2, and Friday’s clashes in Mariupol - have turned sentiment.
Authorities in Kyiv are in a difficult position. If government forces do nothing, the separatists can act with impunity, but trying to restore law and order risks losing the battle for hearts and minds.