Ukraine’s armed forces are on “full combat alert” against a possible Russian invasion, as Kiev admits it’s “helpless” to prevent pro-Kremlin insurgents tightening their grip on the increasingly chaotic east of the country.
Rebels stormed the regional police building and town hall in the eastern Ukrainian city of Gorlivka, local officials said, adding to more than a dozen locations already under their control.
The new seizure followed clashes in nearby Lugansk on Tuesday, as hundreds of pro-Russia protesters spearheaded by a heavily armed mob attacked the police station.
On Wednesday, the rebels lifted their siege of the HQ building after the police chief promised to step down.
In another apparent gain for the rebels, local media reported pro-Russian militants had seized the council building in the city of Alchevsk without encountering resistance.
Ukraine’s interim president Oleksandr Turchynov told his cabinet that the nation’s law enforcement bodies were “helpless” to prevent the insurgents storming official buildings in the restive east.
He said the nation’s armed forces have been put on “full combat alert” in the face of what he called a “real threat” of Russia starting a war against the former Soviet Republic.
Turchynov urged Ukrainian “patriots” to bolster the beleaguered police force, which he has criticised for “inaction and in some cases treachery”.
His priority was to prevent “terrorism” spreading in the restive east, where he said some police officers were even cooperating with the separatists.
He warned also that there could be “acts of sabotage” by Russia during public holidays at the beginning of May.
Meanwhile, negotiations continued to secure the freedom of seven European monitors from the OSCE as the rebel leader holding them said they would be released “at the first opportunity”.
“The dialogue is constructive. We understand each other,” the self-styled mayor of the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told reporters.
Talks are dragging on for “technical reasons”, he added, without elaborating.
The crisis in Ukraine has slipped rapidly into a global confrontation since February, when Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych was forced out after months of increasingly bloody protests.
In response, Moscow launched a blitz annexation of the peninsula of Crimea, and stepped up troops deployments on the border.