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Odessa violence flares anew as PM blames deaths on Russia

By AFP - May 04,2014 - Last updated at May 04,2014

ODESSA, Ukraine — Thousands of pro-Russian protesters assaulted Odessa’s police headquarters Sunday, days after deadly clashes and a fire there killed dozens of their comrades in what Kiev charged was a Russian plot to “destroy Ukraine”.

The unrest in the southern port city threatened a new front in the Ukrainian government’s battle against pro-Moscow militants, with an expanded military operation under way in the east against gunmen holding more than a dozen towns.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russia was executing a plan “to destroy Ukraine and its statehood”.

He was in Odessa to observe mourning for the 42 people who died there in clashes and the fire on Friday — most of them pro-Russian militants.

The unrest shaking the Black Sea city of one million people, he said, aimed “to repeat in Odessa what is happening in the east of the country”.

In an effort to head off any retribution on the streets for Friday’s bloodshed, Yatsenyuk sacked Odessa’s police chiefs and ordered an inquiry.

The police in the headquarters managed to calm the crowd outside by releasing 67 pro-Russian militants they were holding, nearly half the 150 total who had been arrested in Friday’s clashes. One person, though, was reported wounded by gunshot in the city.

Although Moscow has admitted sending troops into Crimea ahead of annexing the strategic peninsula in March, it denies having a hand in Ukraine’s unrest in the east and in Odessa.

Instead it blames the Kiev government and its Western backers for the carnage.

Moscow has also demanded a halt to the Ukrainian military offensive in the east, saying it has received “thousands” of calls for help from the population there for it to intervene.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops have been parked on Ukraine’s border for two months, ready for an invasion Russian President Vladimir Putin says he has a right to launch — but “hopes” he won’t have to.

But Ukrainian officials have pushed on with the operation, determined to crush the pro-Kremlin rebels.

Late Sunday, a spokeswoman for rebels in the insurgent-controlled bastion of Slavyansk said “the town is completely surrounded”.

AFP confirmed that, observing seven armoured vehicles blocking the last main route out, the road to the regional hub of Donetsk.

Ukrainian authorities have already put all armed forces on “combat alert” and brought back conscription as the risk of invasion looms.

The three-day death toll from the eastern offensive meanwhile stood at 10 at least — half of them servicemen — as soldiers confronted gunmen in towns around Slavyansk.

AFP reporters near the eastern town of Kostyantynivka saw a pro-Russian checkpoint abandoned and smouldering while barricades were hastily erected in the centre.

Rebels defending Kostyantynivka told AFP there had been fighting overnight near the town’s television tower.

In nearby Kramatorsk, pro-Russians were holed up in the town hall while burned-out trolley buses and minivans blocked off streets in the city centre.

But in the centre of besieged Slavyansk — whose outskirts saw fierce gun battles on Saturday — the situation remained relatively calm. Some of its 160,000 citizens reported increasing difficulty obtaining basic foodstuffs.

In annexed Crimea there were clashes between police and 2,000 pro-Kiev Tatars demonstrating against Russia’s refusal to allow their leader Mustafa Dzhemilev into the peninsula.

The spreading violence eclipsed the small nugget of positive news in Ukraine on Saturday: the release of seven European OSCE inspectors, who were all safely home after a Russian envoy went to Slavyansk to organise their release.

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