(Corrects spelling of Izyum in 20th paragraph. For more on the Ukrainian crisis, see EXT2.)
Ukrainian forces fought insurgents in the country’s east, killing one rebel and losing a police station, as separatists prepared for a fall election after declaring independence and saying they want to join Russia.
Masked men set fire to a candidate’s regional campaign office before a May 25 presidential ballot as government troops and insurgents skirmished in Ukraine’s Donbass regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The separatists, who hold buildings and radio and television towers in about 15 cities, said they’d hold a vote, possibly around Sept. 14, to elect new officials for their self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.”
“All the current members of the government and parliament of the Donetsk People’s Republic were appointed without a vote,” Dmitry Gau, a spokesman for the separatists, said by phone. “In the fall we’ll have elections.”
Since holding May 11 referendums that they say justify their secession bid, the rebels have set up their own administration and intensified attacks against government troops, who in turn are pushing on with a military operation against the fighters. The government in Kiev and its U.S., European Union and NATO allies have rejected the separatists’ independence calls and say Russia is trying to stir unrest before the presidential election.
NATO says Russian President Vladimir Putin has 40,000 troops arrayed on Ukraine’s border and the alliance has expressed concern that the separatist referendums may be a precursor to a land grab similar to Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula Crimea from Ukraine in March.
The U.S. and EU have imposed sanctions on Russian companies and people in Putin’s inner circle and vowed to tighten them if he disrupts the election.
Alexander Boroday, who has been named premier of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the province will ask to split from Ukraine and join Russia in the near future
“We’re going to do all of this very urgently,” Ostrov newswire quoted Boroday as saying yesterday.
While Russia’s parliament has given Putin a green light to use his forces abroad to protect Russian speakers, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that his country won’t send troops into eastern Ukraine and isn’t trying to foment separatist sentiment there.
A study by the Pew Research Center last month found that 70 percent of respondents in eastern Ukraine wanted the country to remain unified and keep its current borders. The April 5-23 poll of 1,659 people gave no margin of error.
Boroday’s statement followed an agreement between Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and national and regional political leaders and businessmen on a memorandum to be signed by Ukraine’s political parties to let regions elect officials and solve issues through referendums.
In the eastern city of Kharkiv, Yatsenyuk said the central government was willing to devolve power, give the Russian language special status and grant financial autonomy to the eastern regions, which now receive subsidies from Ukraine’s central government.
Russia hasn’t commented on whether it will absorb regions in eastern Ukraine, a step rejected by its onetime Cold War adversaries in the U.S. and much of Europe.
With a week to go before the presidential ballot, masked men torched the office of candidate Sergiy Tigipko’s Donetsk campaign manager with Molotov cocktails.
“Armed radicals are interested in escalating tensions,” Tigipko’s office said in a statement late yesterday. “Thus the interests of radicals are in fundamental conflict with the interests of the residents of Donbass, who want security for themselves and their children, the order of the street, a stable and predictable economic environment.”
In a May 6-8 poll by GFK Ukraine, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who owns a confectionery empire, was in first place with 40 percent. Tigipko was second in support with 9 percent, surpassing former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was in third with 8.8 percent. The mobile phone survey of 810 people had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.
A group of gunmen attacked the Interior Ministry’s regional office in Luhansk, the ministry said in a statement. The separatists were “hiding behind women and children,” which prompted the central government officials to move their office to another town in the region to avoid casualties, the ministry said.
Insurgents also attacked a National Guard base overnight near Slovyansk, a town of 116,000 about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the Russian border, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov posted on Facebook today.
“We didn’t lose anyone,” Avakov said. “Those who attacked the National Guard camp near Slovyansk had one killed and one wounded. He was provided with medical help and is detained. The investigation team is working with him.”
The Defense Ministry said four soldiers were wounded there and in another attack in Izyum, which they also repelled, according to a statement on its website.
The fighting hasn’t stopped a rally in Russian markets. The benchmark Micex Index of stocks added 0.8 percent on May 16, posting its third straight weekly gain, though it’s still down more than 6 percent since Putin’s Ukrainian ally Viktor Yanukovych was toppled from the country’s presidency by a popular uprising in February. Ukraine’s hryvnia fell 1.1 percent against the dollar on May 16, extending its loss this year to 31 percent.
The separatists have adopted a constitution establishing the breakaway state’s borders as those of the two Ukrainian regions. Dozens of people have been killed in the fighting and scores more have been abducted.
In a report last week, United Nations monitors criticized “repeated acts of violence” against protesters, mainly those in favor of Ukraine’s unity, as well as “targeted killings, torture and beatings,” mostly by “well-armed anti-government groups in the east.”