SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — At least a dozen armed men in camouflage seized a police station in a small town in eastern Ukraine on Saturday morning as tensions in the country’s Russia-speaking regions intensify.
The town of Slovyansk is about 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of the regional center, Donetsk, where pro-Russian protesters have occupied a government building for nearly a week. Protesters hoisted the Russian flag above the building, photos and videos from the scene showed.
The men who stormed the police station haven’t presented any demands, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said.
Minister Arsen Avakov pledged a “very tough response” to the seizure while local media reported special forces dispatched to the area.
Videos on a local website showed several men armed with machine guns in balaclavas guarding the entrance to the police station. They are all wearing St. George’s ribbons, a symbol of the Soviet Union’s victory in WWII, which has become a symbol of pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine.
Gunshots rang out in a video from the scene after an armed man shouted to a cameraman to stop recording. No casualties were immediately reported.
The town’s mayor, Nelya Shtepa, said on local television that she is holding talks with the attackers who she insisted were from the area.
Protesters who have held the administration building in Donetsk since Sunday initially called for a referendum on secession but later reduced the demand to a vote on autonomy within Ukraine with the possibility of holding another later on whether to join Russia.
Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland was the support base for Kremlin-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February after months of protests. Last month, the Crimea region voted to secede and was annexed by Russia – but only after Russia took over the peninsula by force.
The Ukrainian government has accused Russia of fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine in a bid to derail next months’ presidential election in Ukraine.
Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Kiev.