For residents of Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine, a government offensive against pro-Russian separatists stirred concerns that their safety may be at risk and prompted emergency preparations.
Andrei Khabarov, 40, a farm-equipment vendor, said he was keeping his daughter home from school this week and parking his car on the street in case his family needed to escape quickly. He and several other people alleged that Ukrainian jets buzzed the area as an operation to dislodge the separatists ensued, though their claims couldn’t be independently verified.
“Why did they have to use the jets in our town? Why did Kiev use the jets?” Khabarov said last night in an interview. “Send the police, send special units if you want, if you think that somebody is seizing your airport, but not the Air Force. This is not a place to play World War II here.”
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Ukraine’s government began moving yesterday to retake administrative buildings occupied by armed separatists in several cities near the border with Russia. The operation unfolded as leaders in Kiev, joined by the U.S. and European Union, accused Russia of instigating disturbances in eastern Ukraine.
“The aim of these actions is to protect people,” acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said in a statement on his website. “Apart from Russian special forces and terrorists, there’s hundreds of thousands of innocent Ukrainian people deceived by Russian propaganda, and that is why we will take any needed anti-terrorist actions prudently and responsibly.”
Even with those assurances, people in Kramatorsk, a city of about 170,000 people about 150 kilometers (95 miles) from the Russian border, were making preparations should the violence intensify.
Evgeny Degtyaryov, 29, said he began making body armor four days ago using steel from the car repair shop where he works. He made a set for his wife and one for himself, with each taking two days to produce, Degtyaryov said.
“I am really scared,” he said in an interview. “I made a body armor for my wife and don’t let her go even to buy food without it.”
Forces from the Ukrainian interior ministry succeeded yesterday in taking back the airport from the separatists, though there were conflicting accounts about casualties from the operation. Stanislav Rechinsky, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior ministry, said one protester was wounded and no one was killed, while Russian state television reported that as many as 11 militants had been killed.
The effort to contain the mounting insurgency risks escalating tensions with Russia, which annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last month. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization says Russia has 40,000 troops massed on the Ukrainian border, while Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that the region risked spiraling into civil war.
At a roadblock near Kramatorsk, a pro-Russian activist named Nikolai who refused to give his last name, citing concerns for his safety, stopped a reporter’s car. The 26-year-old, who was accompanied by a friend with an air gun, said fellow activists were preparing for Ukrainian government forces to arrive.
“We are waiting for them,” he said. “Though I don’t know what we will do when they come. We have no weapons.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Stepan Kravchenko in Kramatorsk, Ukraine at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at email@example.com Michael Shepard, Don Frederick