Pro-Russian separatists armed with automatic weapons set up checkpoints on roads into the eastern Ukrainian city of Slaviansk today, Reuters witnesses said.
Masked men wearing a mixture of civilian and combat clothing checked passing vehicles before waving them past barricades built out of car tyres and sand bags on roads leading into the city from Donetsk and Luhansk, the witnesses said.
A Russian flag flew at one of the checkpoints, while a black, blue and red separatist flag flew above another one.
Earlier today, armed pro-Russian militants raised the Russian flag in Slaviansk, deepening Ukraine’s stand-off with Moscow which, Kiev warned, was dragging Europe closer to a “gas war” that could disrupt supplies across the Continent.
At least 20 men armed with pistols and rifles took over the police and security services headquarters in Slaviansk, about 150km (90 miles) from the border with Russia. Officials said the men had seized hundreds of pistols from arsenals in the buildings. The militants replaced the Ukrainian flag on one of the buildings with the Russian flag.
Some local residents helped the militants build barricades of tyres in anticipation that police would try to force them out, a Reuters photographer at the scene said.
There was no sign that any police action was imminent. The occupation is a potential flashpoint because if the militants are killed or hurt by Ukrainian forces, that could prompt the Kremlin to intervene to protect the local Russian-speaking population – a repeat of the scenario in the Crimea region when Russian troops were sent in. Russia denies any plan to send in forces or split Ukraine, but the western-leaning authorities in Kiev believe Russia is trying to create a pretext to interfere again.
NATO says Russia’s armed forces are massing on Ukraine’s eastern border, while Moscow says they are on normal manoeuvres.
Ukraine’s acting foreign minister Andrii Deshchytsia said he had spoken in a phone call with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and demanded Moscow stop what he called “provocative actions” by its agents in eastern Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in confrontation since protests in Kiev forced the Moscow-backed president from office, and the Kremlin sent troops into Crimea. Gas dispute While the crisis within Ukraine itself is still unresolved, the gas dispute threatens to affect millions of people across Europe.
A large proportion of the natural gas which EU states buy from Russia is pumped via Ukrainian territory, so if Russia makes good on a threat to cut off Ukraine for non-payment of its bills, customers further west will have supplies disrupted. Russia is demanding Kiev pay a much higher price for its gas and settle unpaid bills.
Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom and its Ukrainian counterpart, Naftogaz, are in talks, but the chances of an agreement are slim.
“I would say we are coming nearer to a solution of the situation, but one in the direction that is bad for Ukraine,“ Ukrainian energy minister Yuri Prodan said in an interview with German newspaper Boersenzeitung.
Militants with automatic rifles and separatist flags set up checkpoints on roads into East Ukraine city of Slaviansk.