HORLIVKA, Ukraine (CBS News/CBSDC/AP) — Ukraine’s police and security forces are “helpless” to quell unrest in two eastern regions bordering Russia, and in some cases are cooperating with pro-Russian gunmen who have seized scores of government buildings and taken people hostage, the country’s president said Wednesday.
Oleksandr Turchynov said the goal now was to prevent the agitation from spreading to other territories.
“I will be frank: Today, security forces are unable to quickly take the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under control,” Turchynov said at a meeting with regional governors.
“The security bodies … are unable to carry out their duties of protecting citizens. They are helpless in those matters. Moreover, some of those units are either helping or cooperating with terrorist organizations.”
Turchynov instructed the governors to try to prevent the threat from spreading to more central and southern regions.
He spoke hours after pro-Russian gunmen seized more administrative buildings in eastern Ukraine. Insurgents wielding automatic weapons took control and hoisted a separatist flag on top of the city council building Wednesday morning in the city of Horlivka in the Donetsk region. They also took control of a police station in the city, adding to another police building which they had controlled for several weeks.
An Associated Press reporter saw armed men standing guard outside the building and checking the documents of those entering. One of the men said that foreign reporters will not be allowed in and threatened to arrest those don’t obey orders. Similar guards were also seen outside the police station in the city.
The insurgents now control buildings in about a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine, demanding broader regional rights as well as greater ties or outright annexation by Russia. The militiamen are holding some activists and journalists hostage, including a group of observers from a European security organization.
In Luhansk, one of the largest cities in eastern Ukraine, gunmen in camouflage uniforms maintained control of several government offices they seized Tuesday.
Eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population, was the heartland of support for Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted president who fled to Russia in February. The government that replaced him in Kiev has resisted the insurgents’ demands, fearing they could lead to a breakup of the country or mean that more regions could join Russia, as Crimea did.
Kiev and Western governments accuse Moscow of orchestrating the protests in eastern Ukraine. The United States and the European Union rolled out a fresh set of economic sanctions against Russia this week, but Moscow has remained unbowed, denying its role in the unrest and saying the actions were Kiev’s fault.
U.S. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told The Associated Press after a military symposium in Dallas that he found it “unsettling” that Russia would amass forces along the Ukrainian border and deploy Russian aircraft into Ukrainian airspace to influence its May 25 presidential election.
“They are clearly trying to pressure the upcoming elections, and whatever transitional government might form, using military force,” he said.
Dempsey had “grave concern” over Russia’s aggressive behavior, according to an earlier statement issued by the Pentagon.
A German-led group of military observers traveling under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe remained in captivity Saturday, accused of being NATO spies by a pro-Russian insurgency.
Dempsey said he told his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, in a telephone conversation last week that the observers could help stabilize the situation in Ukraine.
“We’ve got observers from the OSCE, some of whom have been denied access by pro-Russian groups, and I suggested to him that one way we could contribute to some kind of stable outcome would be if he on his side and me on my side could seek to get those observers in there so that we could have a neutral party tell us what’s going on,” he said.
Dempsey refuted Gerasimov’s reported assertion by Russia’s Interfax news agency that Ukraine has mobilized a “significant number of troops” on the Ukrainian side of the border with Russia.
“That’s not at all what our reports indicate is unfolding in Ukraine,” he said.
Nevertheless, outside Slovyansk, a city about 150 kilometers (90 miles) west of Russia, Ukraine government forces continued operations to form a security cordon as it attempts to quell unrest threatening to derail the planned May election.
The West has threatened additional sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March and the ongoing escalation of military operations along the border.
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