Kiev (AFP) – An increasingly desperate Ukraine on Thursday brought back military conscription with immediate effect as a spreading pro-Russian rebellion in the east threatened the ex-Soviet republic with disintegration.
The move, decreed by interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, came after insurgents tightened their grip over more than a dozen eastern cities and towns by seizing the state prosecutor’s building in the regional hub city of Donetsk.
Around 300 militants hurling petrol bombs and bricks stormed the building, beating up outnumbered riot police who were stripped of their shields and batons.
The violence took place as mass pro-Russia rallies were held in Donetsk and in annexed Crimea.
Kiev’s Western-backed government has already admitted its security forces are helpless to halt the expanding rebellion it accuses Moscow of masterminding.
Turchynov on Wednesday accused law enforcement units in the east of “inaction” or even working with the rebels in an act of “treachery.”
He also put Ukraine’s current army of 130,000 on “full combat alert” because of fears an estimated 40,000 Russian troops massed on the border for the past two months could invade.
In his conscription order Thursday for Ukrainian male reservists aged 18-25, Turchynov said his government was trying to counter “the deteriorating situation in the east and the south.”
The mounting insurgency and building seizures “threaten territorial integrity,” a statement from his office said.
Russia’s foreign ministry said any effort by Kiev to intensify its military operation “against its own people” in the east could have “catastrophic consequences.”
In another dramatic development, Kiev overnight ordered out a Russian diplomat arrested for espionage, risking a tit-for-tat response from Russia.
Amid the spiraling crisis, Germany stepped up its appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to help free seven OSCE inspectors held in the town of Slavyansk by the rebels — four Germans, a Pole, a Dane and a Czech.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel “reminded President Putin of Russia’s responsibilities as an OSCE member and called on him to use his influence,” Merkel’s spokesman said.
The Kremlin said both leaders emphasized the “mediating potential of the OSCE” in calming the crisis in Ukraine.
Putin reiterated his call for Kiev to end its military operation trying to counter the pro-Russian rebellion.
The West, which also believes Putin is pulling the strings in the insurgency despite his denials, this week imposed sanctions on powerful Russian individuals and firms as punishment.
Russia has reacted angrily, but said it would not retaliate unless the pressure was upped further.
Moscow “will not rush to do anything stupid,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on a trip to Latin America.
The International Monetary Fund has meanwhile thrown a $17-billion lifeline to Ukraine, with $3.2 billion of that available immediately.
But the IMF later warned that, “should the central government lose effective control over the east, the program will need to be re-designed.”
The money could be used to pay a $3.5-billion Russian gas debt that Putin has warned could lead to him turning off the taps, in a move also affecting several European countries.
Talks were due to take place Friday in Warsaw between the European Union, Russia and Kiev over the gas dispute.
Thursday’s escalation of the Ukraine crisis occurred while 10,000 people in Donetsk marched in opposition to the Kiev government and in favor of closer ties to Russia.
The rally evolved from a traditional International Labor Day march.
In Moscow, the same event turned into a sort of victory parade for Putin and his policies in Ukraine, with 100,000 workers filling Red Square for the first time since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union, waving patriotic slogans and praising the president.
By contrast, the Labor Day march in Kiev was dispirited and meager, attended by a mere 2,000 people.
“Why do others quietly steal our land? Why does Russia do it, as well as the Ukrainian oligarchs? I am not against Russia, I don’t care about what authority will be here, but they should give us a normal life,” said one participant, a 51-year-old unemployed woman who gave her name as Zhanna.
In Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Russia annexed in March, some 60,000 people marched in the main city of Simferopol to hail Putin bringing them under Moscow’s governance.
Putin and his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, are reportedly to make a triumphant visit to the territory late next week.
In Slavyansk, near Donetsk, the near week-long stalemate over the fate of seven detained European military inspectors with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe dragged on. Four OSCE negotiators were seen arriving late Thursday.
Rebels in the town have been saying for three days that the team, grabbed last week, were about to be freed after negotiations involving a prisoner swap.
But so far the militants claim only to have exchanged two of three Ukrainian commandos captured separately for some of their colleagues taken prisoner by Kiev, according to the Interfax news agency.
Ukrainian authorities denied that the commandos had been freed.
The condition of all three of the men was unknown. The last time they were seen, on Russian state television, they were savagely beaten, cuffed to chairs with their bloodied eyes bound by tape, and stripped to their underwear.
The unrest in Ukraine, which started with peaceful demonstrations in Kiev against former president Viktor Yanukovych, has rapidly spiraled into one of the worst geopolitical crises in years.
After a deadly crackdown on protesters, Yanukovych was forced out, sparking fury in Moscow which led to the Kremlin’s blitz annexation of Crimea.
The pro-Russia rebels who have been steadily taking more ground in the east vow to hold their own Crimea-style “referendum” on independence on May 11 — two weeks before a nationwide presidential vote is due to take place on May 25.
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