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The situation in eastern Ukraine is continuing to escalate

Gunman have seized a police station, a security building, and hundreds of weapons.

Image: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

KALASHNIKOV-WIELDING GUNMEN HAVE seized a police station and a security building in the east of Ukraine, as spreading protests press for the heavily Russified region to join Kremlin rule.

The coordinated attacks and a failed assault on the prosecutor’s office in the local capital Donetsk underscored the volatility of the crisis ahead of peace talks between EU and US diplomats and their Moscow and Kiev counterparts in Geneva on Thursday.

Russia is now ready to demand prepayment from the cash-strapped government for future gas deliveries or halt supplies — a cutoff that would impact at least 18 EU countries and add further urgency to the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.

But the raids more immediately highlight how little sway Kiev’s untested leaders have over pro-Russians who have since April 6 controlled the Donetsk government seat and a state security building in the nearby eastern city of Lugansk.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk visited the region on Friday in a failed bid to pacify protesters with a vague promise of more sweeping regional rights.

‘Armed terrorists’

The morning raid on the police station and a subsequent attack of the regional security service centre happened in Slavyansk — a riverside town of 100,000 about 60 kilometres (35 miles) north of the regional capital Donetsk.

Ukraine’s interior ministry said the first assault was led by 20 “armed men in camouflage fatigues” whose main purpose was to get a hold of 20 machineguns and 400 Makarov guns stored in the police headquarters “and to distribute them to protesters”.

“Our response will be very severe,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.

It was not immediately clear how the local police responded or whether the gunmen had taken any hostages.

Ukraine Masked pro-Russian activists march after leaving a regional prosecutor's office in Donetsk. Source: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

But Avakov said that Ukrainian special forces had been dispatched to the scene.

“There is zero tolerance for armed terrorists,” he said.

An AFP reporter saw the Slavyansk police station being surrounded by armed men in masks and camouflage who had set up a barricade of old tyres and dumpsters in front of the police headquarters.

The gunmen aggressively shoved aside Western reporters and only allowed Russian-speaking media anywhere near the building.

“The entire city… will defend the guys who seized this building,” Slavyansk Mayor Neli Shlepa told Russia’s Life News television outside the police headquarters.

The interior ministry said some of the same gunmen had later occupied the city’s state security service building.

“The protest participants are continuing to arm themselves with weapons seized from the police,” the interior ministry said in a statement.

Ukraine’s interior minister said that a separate group of assailants had also unsuccessfully tried to seize the Donetsk prosecutor’s office

“They have all been expelled. The building has been cleared of unauthorised personnel,” Avakov wrote.

“Another self-declared defence minister has been arrested,” he added.

An AFP reporter saw a heavy police presence around the prosecutor’s office and the building under apparent government control.

The Donetsk adminstration centre is now being held by gunmen who have proclaimed the creation of their own “people’s republic” and called on President Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops into eastern Ukraine.

The interior minister had on Wednesday issued a veiled 48-hour ultimatum for the Donetsk separatists to lay down their arms or face the possible of use of force.

But no action followed and Russia warned on Friday that any use of force wound result in Moscow boycotting the Geneva talks.

© – AFP 2014

Read: Ukraine could ‘unleash civil war’ if it steps in against militants in eastern cities >

Column: A divided EU will embolden Putin >

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