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Published: Monday March 3, 2014 MYT 11:40:02 PM
Updated: Monday March 3, 2014 MYT 11:40:58 PM

Pro-Russia protesters occupy regional government in Ukraine's Donetsk

DONETSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - Pro-Russian demonstrators occupied the regional government building in east Ukraine's city of Donetsk on Monday, where they presided as besieged lawmakers voted to hold a referendum, without saying what the public would be asked to decide upon.

The chaotic scene in the heart of Ukraine's Russian-speaking east was one of the boldest actions yet by pro-Russian youths after several days of rallies in eastern and southern cities that Kiev says are organised by Moscow as a pretext to invade.

The protesters stormed the building and reached the second floor where the regional council sits, despite efforts to keep them out by switching off lifts and sealing stairwell doors.

A Reuters photographer outside said hundreds of demonstrators, chanting "Putin, come", managed to enter the building through a side door after clashing with police who guarded the front of the building. Windows were smashed, making it possible for some to reach the second floor.

Reporters inside, who sheltered on the fourth floor after the first floor was overrun, were eventually escorted out of the besieged building by police. The protesters checked documents to prevent municipal employees and lawmakers from leaving.

The 11-storey building has been flying the Russian flag, rather than the Ukrainian flag, for three days, with pro-Russian demonstrators staging daily rallies outside.

Barricaded inside the building, the local lawmakers voted 98-3 in favour of a declaration that pledged "support for the popular initiatives of the residents of the Donetsk region, put forward at demonstrations," according to a text of the resolution on the regional government website.

However, the text fell shy of the demands of the protesters, who are led by a man named Pavel Gubarev, who has declared himself "people's governor" of the region. He had demanded that deputies declare the government in Kiev illegitimate, put all security forces under regional control, withhold taxes from Kiev and a host of other measures.

The resolution called for a referendum in the region, but did not say what question would be asked or when it would be held. The protesters want a vote on March 30 that would declare the region sovereign. Kiev says any such vote would be illegal.

The measure also called for "public formations for the maintenance of public order", and recognised "historical, spiritual and cultural" links between the region and Russia.

The confusion in the building shows the divisions in the east, where many mostly Russian-speaking people are angered by the dominance of Ukrainian-speaking westerners in the new authorities in Kiev and want greater autonomy, while others are wary of provocation by Moscow.

TALK OF INVASION

Russian forces have already taken control of Ukraine's Crimea region, an isolated Black Sea peninsula, and Moscow has threatened to invade Ukraine to protect Russian speakers from what it says is a nationalist new government in Kiev.

Kiev says pro-Russian demonstrations have been organised by Moscow as a pretext to invade. Donestsk is one of the most industrialised parts of Ukraine, producing coal, steel, chemicals and turbines for nuclear plants.

It is also the home city of Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian president who was toppled in Kiev 10 days ago. Most people in the region are ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian as their first language. Few now support Yanukovich, though many still look to Russia as an ally.

Pro-Russian demonstrations have been held in several eastern and southern cities since Saturday, in some cases ending with Russian flags raised at regional government buildings.

Kiev says Moscow has organised the demonstrations and sent hundreds of Russian citizens across the frontier to stage them.

A protest in the eastern city of Kharkiv turned bloody on Saturday, with scores of people hurt in clashes when pro-Moscow demonstrators wielding chains and axe handles stormed the regional government building. Kharkiv was quiet on Monday.

(Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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