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Luhansk Dispatch: Armed Pro-Russian Protesters Set For Standoff With Police

An armed man, believed to be a pro-Russian protester, stands guard inside the offices of the Ukrainian Security Service in Luhansk on April 7.
An armed man, believed to be a pro-Russian protester, stands guard inside the offices of the Ukrainian Security Service in Luhansk on April 7.
LUHANSK, Ukraine -- In Luhansk, everything is now in place for a potentially bloody standoff between pro-Russian protesters and Ukrainian police that could dramatically escalate tensions in the east of the country.

The hundreds of protesters who seized the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) regional headquarters on April 6 have broken into the building's armory and can now arm themselves from it at will.

And while police fear they may try to smuggle the weapons out, the protesters themselves said they had no intention of doing so. Instead, they were barricading themselves within the building for an apparently extended stay.

A spokesman for the protesters, who gave his name only as Oleksiy, refused to tell reporters outside the building on April 7 how many guns had been seized. But he said there were "enough to resist takeover of the building" by security forces.
Pro-Russian activists hold machine guns they say they found in the state security service building in Luhansk.
Pro-Russian activists hold machine guns they say they found in the state security service building in Luhansk.

Hundreds more protesters remained outside the building and were erecting barricades of tires in what appeared to be the start of the first pro-Russian "maidan" of the Ukrainian crisis. A nearby truck had delivered tons of bricks for protesters to use against any effort to try to evict them.

Many of the protesters, who were estimated on April 6 to number some 1,000 but whose ranks have since thinned, carried metal bars or wooden clubs and had stockpiles of empty bottles for making Molotov cocktails.

Late on April 7, a spokeswoman for the Luhansk regional Prosecutor-General's Office, Maryna Bragina, said that "talks will be held in the near future" with the pro-Russian forces.

"We are putting together a working group that will conduct the talks," Bragina said.

Particularly Volatile

The digging in of the pro-Russian protesters in this city just 25 kilometers from the Russian border adds a flammable new ingredient to the situation in eastern Ukraine, where until now the seizure of buildings has been a violent but short-term business.

That pattern now seems to have changed, with pro-Russian protesters also seizing the regional government seat in Donetsk on April 6. There, some 100 people who remained inside proclaimed a sovereign "People's Republic of Donetsk" on April 7 and called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to send a "temporary peacekeeping contingent."

In Kharkiv, several dozen people also broke into the regional government building during a protest on April 6 then left it again.

The situation in Luhansk is made particularly volatile not just by the fact the protesters were digging in but also by the nature of their demands.

The protesters were calling for the release of 15 activists who were arrested by the SBU earlier this week on suspicion of plotting violent unrest. The 15 men were seized in the Luhansk region along with a cache of 300 assault rifles, a grenade launcher, and large numbers of grenades, Molotov cocktails, and knives.

The protesters' connection to the 15 suspects, now in jail in Kyiv, was unclear. Those around the building said they were members of organizations called the "Luhansk Guard" or the "People's Self-Defense Force," or other names that told little about them. Some of the men were from the city of Luhansk itself, while others were from the surrounding region.

According to Oleksiy, the spokesman, the protesters also wanted a referendum on the federalization of Ukraine and wanted Russian to be officially designated as the country's second state language.

As the protesters showed no signs of leaving, the next move belongs to the Ukrainian authorities. The head of the SBU, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, and the head of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Andriy Parubiy, flew into Luhansk from Kyiv on April 7 to chart a course.
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Meanwhile, the population of Luhansk remains divided over how to regard the takeover of the SBU headquarters by pro-Russian protesters.

Luhansk is entirely Russian-speaking because even Ukrainian speakers use Russian in the city's daily life, but questions of how people see the country's future go far beyond linguistic lines.

Older people, particularly those who remember the Soviet Union, generally favor Ukraine moving closer to Russia. Younger people and intellectuals generally favor closer European integration. The divides can be between families and even within families, making any predictions about the desires of people in Luhansk as a whole extremely difficult.
Written by Charles Recknagel in Prague based on reporting from Luhansk by Andriy Kuznetsov; Merkhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report