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Horlivka Dispatch: Uneasy Calm Following Takeover

Pro-Russia militants detain the head of the regional police after storming the a police building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Horlivka, near Donetsk.
HORLIVKA, Ukraine -- An uneasy calm reigns in Horlivka, hours after gun-toting separatists stormed a local city-administration building.

Aside from the gutted-out police headquarters, seized two days ago amid violent clashes, nothing really seems amiss in this sleepy industrial town in eastern Ukraine.

But the apparent calm belies a deep rift between locals supporting the takeover of Horlivka, the latest city in eastern Ukraine to fall under the control of pro-Russian militants, and those loyal to authorities in Kyiv.

While Crimea's population overwhelmingly backed joining Russia, Horlivka residents are divided.

I witnessed a quarrel outside the occupied police building. A group of residents came to condemn what had happened. They said that it wasn't the way to resolve problems and that assaulting the police was wrong.

I spoke to a group of young mothers strolling in a park with their children and they, too, had harsh words for the separatists. They believed pro-Ukrainians should get organized and repel them.

The local police also refused to surrender to the angry mob, unlike many officers in neighboring cities who switched to the separatists' side.

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Local police chief Andriy Kryshchenko ended up being severely beaten up, reportedly for tearing up a Russian flag. His deputy was seized and taken to Donetsk, where separatists control key administration buildings.

Ukraine's acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, now wants to decorate both men for their courage.

Many locals, of course, would happily discard their Ukrainian passports and see the Donetsk region become part of Russia. Few of them, however, can clearly formulate why.

Most seem to embrace the pro-Russian wave sweeping eastern Ukraine without fully grasping what agenda the men besieging government buildings are really pursuing.

There are also drunk people among the Moscow supporters who appear to be simply enjoying the action.

Despite Kyiv's renewed threat of a vast "antiterrorist operation" to root out the separatists, pro-Russian forces in Horlivka show no sign of retreating.

Outside the police building, barricades made of sandbags and car tires are quickly going up.
Pro-Russia protesters wearing gas masks storm a regional police building as one prepares a Molotov cocktail in Horlivka.
Pro-Russia protesters wearing gas masks storm a regional police building as one prepares a Molotov cocktail in Horlivka.

A few dozen separatists guard the occupied police station day and night. Some have clubs and other makeshift weapons, but no guns. A crowd of some 30 or 40 local supporters usually stands outside the building.

Inside, a group of armed men continue to occupy the premises. They only rarely leave the building. They are believed to be so-called "little green men," a term used in Ukraine to describe unmarked soldiers believed to be Russians.

It's both difficult and dangerous for journalists here, particularly for Ukrainian ones like me.
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I can't introduce myself as a Ukrainian correspondent when I talk to people near the seized buildings.

They would either beat me up or destroy my equipment. I feel anything could happen to me here.

Locals who support the separatists are wary of Ukrainian reporters. They think we will distort their words and brand them terrorists.

Many seem completely misinformed.

One woman tried to persuade me that the Ukrainian parliament had passed a law under which residents found to have non-Ukrainian blood would be either deported or shot dead.

She said she had heard of this "law" on Russian television.

Many here also repeat like a mantra that Right Sector activists from western Ukraine are bent on murdering eastern Ukrainians and their families.

And it's this fear that is driving them to support separatists.
Written by Claire Bigg in Prague based on an interview with Levko Stek in Horlivka
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    Levko Stek

    Levko Stek is a multimedia correspondent for Donbas.Realities of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. He joined RFE/RL in 2013, one week before the Maidan protests began, which he exhaustively documented, along with the shoot-down of MH17. He covered Russia's forcible annexation of Crimea and documented some of the most intense fighting during the height of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.