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Thursday May 1, 2014 MYT 12:15:02 AM
Thursday May 1, 2014 MYT 12:16:07 AM
by thomas grove
LUHANSK Ukraine (Reuters) - The police of Luhansk had already stacked sandbags to the ceiling of their HQ in anticipation of trouble, during a month in which government buildings and police stations had tumbled to armed separatists across Ukraine's industrial east.
But nothing had prepared them for the assault they faced on Tuesday night by gunmen armed with automatic rifles, petrol bombs and stun grenades.
The city's police chief, Vladimir Ruslavsky, had little choice but to cede command, showing the assailants the letter of resignation they demanded, signed and faxed to the Interior Ministry in Kiev, said Tatyana Pogukai, a spokeswoman for the local police.
The city government, prosecutor's office and television centre had already fallen, in a major advance for pro-Russian separatists in their three-week-old uprising against the pro-Western government in Kiev.
"I was here all night," Pogukai told Reuters on Wednesday. "I slept on the floor."
"The station constantly sent messages that we were being stormed, that they were throwing grenades, but there was no answer," she said of the national police leadership in Kiev.
"There are no orders from Kiev. None at all. There's a feeling that for Kiev, Luhansk and the Luhansk police station simply don't exist."
The account of Tuesday's takeover in Ukraine's easternmost provincial capital, an hour's drive from the Russian border, reinforces the sense of a region slipping decisively from the grasp of a central government cobbled together barely two months ago amid the worst civil turmoil in Ukraine since independence in 1991.
Where it leads will likely be known after May 11, when the region's self-declared "People's Republic of Donetsk" holds a referendum on secession, echoing events in Crimea before its annexation by Russia in late March.
Ruslavsky's officers never fired back, copying their comrades across this steel and coal belt who have sooner or later given up in the face of angry crowds armed with clubs and chains, often backed by well-organised gunmen in masks and military fatigues.
Some officers left, handing in their weapons, while others stayed and could be seen carrying out their duties on Wednesday in an uneasy cohabitation with the separatists. The ground floor windows of the headquarters were smashed and there were dents in the main gate.
Approached by a reporter, the police directed questions to a man in civilian clothing who was talking and laughing with officers on the street. He gave his name as Denis, and was unarmed but held a two-way radio.
"Criminals are still criminals, despite the revolution," he said, explaining why the separatists would allow police to keep working. "The police have the data, the professional skills, and if you drive them off you'll have chaos."
Another separatist, who declined to be identified, said the men who carried out Tuesday's operation were loyal to Valery Bolotov, a retired military officer now one of the leaders of the separatist "Army of the Southeast".
Bolotov was named on a list of people slapped with sanctions by the European Union on Tuesday, in an as yet fruitless attempt by Western countries to slow the uprising.
The surrender and in some cases defection of the police represents a formidable blow to Kiev, which plans an election for president on May 25 but now has little control in parts of the east.
This week's sudden capture of Luhansk, along with neighbouring Donetsk province which they have mostly held for weeks, gives separatists effective sway over the entire Donbass, the prized coal region where giant steel smelters and heavy plants produce around a third of Ukraine's industrial output.
Many native Russian speakers in the east feel aggrieved at events over the past five months in Kiev, where protests toppled Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich in a tug-of-war between the West and Russia over the strategic direction of the former Soviet republic.
Ukraine's armed forces have held off any large-scale operation to wrest back control, both because of a lack of training and equipment and out of fear of triggering an invasion by tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the border.
Ukraine's acting President Oleksander Turchinov on Tuesday ordered the dismissal of police chiefs in Donetsk and Luhansk, and his chief of staff said authorities had suspended eight commanders of the elite Alpha security service unit, accusing them of dereliction of duty.
But even that produced more disarray. The state security service (SBU) later disputed that one of the commanders had been suspended. There was also confusion over an announcement on the government website of military exercises in the capital, which the Defence Ministry said was untrue.
Remarks on Wednesday by Turchinov reinforced the sense of a state barely in control of a swathe of territory, unravelling along faultlines of language, culture and history.
"I want to say, honestly, that today, the operational units are not capable of taking control of the situation in two regions," he told a meeting of regional governors.
"Local law enforcement units are helpless, and some from those units either support or cooperate with the terrorists."
(Additional reporting and writing by Matt Robinson in Kiev; Editing by Peter Graff)
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