Kiev's grip loosening on restive eastern Ukraine

DONETSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - Staff working for Serhiy Taruta, the steel baron appointed by Kiev as governor of the restive Donetsk region, say he is hard at work in the regional capital, but cannot disclose where exactly for security reasons.

The governor is in an "operational headquarters suitable for wartime," said Taruta's spokesman, Alexander Omelchuk.

Those unusual working arrangements reveal an uncomfortable truth for the Western-backed government in the capital Kiev: its control over the Russian-speaking Donetsk region in the east of the country is so fragile it is almost non-existent.

The point was driven home at the weekend when a series of insurrections by pro-Russian protesters spread like brush fire through the region.

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In one town after another, the officials and security forces who are nominally loyal to Kiev and supposed to uphold its rule over the country melted away or, in some places, swapped sides and joined the protesters.

Kiev and its Western backers say this state of affairs is the result of cynical manipulation by Russian agents, an allegation Moscow denies.

Whatever the reason, the fact is that Kiev's writ does not run in large parts of the territory, raising questions about whether the country can keep functioning in its current form, or ever realise Kiev's ambitions of joining the European Union.

Acting President Oleksander Turchinov rejects the notion that Ukraine is split.

He said on Monday difficulties with governance were countrywide and stemmed from the fact pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich concentrated power before fleeing in February.

"We did not expect that the whole system of central and regional power would fall to pieces so quickly," Turchinov said.

Donetsk region is Ukraine's coal mining heartland, has much of the country's heavy industry, and is home to 4.3 million people - or about a tenth of Ukraine's total population as it stood at the start of this year.

A spokeswoman for Turchinov said the authorities in Kiev remain in control of the east of the country, where Taruta is one of several business billionaires they have put in charge, but declined to elaborate.

The Kiev administration announced that it was launching a full-scale operation to put down the rebellions in the east, starting on Monday morning, although 12 hours later there was no sign of the operation.

"The government is making every effort to restore confidence in the authorities," Deputy Foreign Minister Danylo Lubkivsky told a news conference. "Ukraine is fighting back," he said.


Anecdotal evidence of Kiev's crumbling hold can be seen throughout Donetsk region, where the majority of people speak Russian instead of Ukrainian. Many feel an affinity with people across the border in Russia.

Andrei Anosov's predecessor as head of the regional police was forced out by pro-Russian protesters who picketed the police headquarters in Donetsk.

When Anosov took over the job - which is officially subordinate to the authorities in Kiev - he appeared with a black and orange ribbon attached to his jacket. That is the symbol adopted by pro-Russian militias in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

"I take on the command," Anosov told people gathered outside his headquarters on Saturday, saying he would work "in support of the people."

A young, rank-and-file police officer on duty at a pro-Russian rally in front of the regional administration building in Donetsk had a an ambivalent view on upholding Kiev's rule.

"What are we supposed to do? Fire a volley at the grannies, veterans, mothers with children and other locals who come here? It's not the police role to fire at its people," he said.

"I was born here and do not want to be told to shoot at my neighbours," said the officer, who declined to be named because he is not allowed to reveal his private views at work.

The building the policeman was patrolling had been the governor's office, but it has been occupied by protesters. Consequently, part of Taruta's staff now work from the hotel Viktoria, while some work from home.

A month ago Taruta gave an interview to Reuters in the regional government building that is now occupied. Now his press aides say he is not available for meetings in person, or for telephone interviews because of the risk of bugging.

Taruta was last seen in public in Donetsk on April 11, feeding rumours among residents he is no longer there. One of the governor's aides, who gave his name as Ilya, said that was untrue. "They say he is in town," he said.

(Additional reporting by Conor Humpries and Natalia Zinets in Kiev and Lina Kushch in Donetsk, Ukraine; writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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