LUHANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Protesters demanding more power for Ukraine’s regions stormed the government building in Luhansk with baseball bats Tuesday, seizing control of a key site in one of the largest cities in Ukraine’s troubled east.
The move further raises tensions in the east, where pro-Russia militias have seized city halls, police stations and other government buildings in at least 10 cities and towns.
In Slovyansk, the insurgents have been holding seven European military observers since Friday. Russian President Vladimir Putin said late Tuesday that he hoped they will be released soon.
The demonstrators who overran the building in Luhansk are seeking — at the very least — a referendum on granting greater authority to Ukraine’s regions.
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 those demands so far, fearing they could lead to a breakup of the country or mean that more regions could join Russia, as Crimea did.
The storming came as 1,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the building. About 150 people, some masked and wielding baseball bats, broke out of the crowd and charged into the building, meeting no resistance. Later protesters formed a corridor to allow police inside the building to leave.
Luhansk, a city of about 450,000, is just 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of the border with Russia.
Regional autonomy is a core issue in the unrest in eastern Ukraine, where insurgents fear that the government that took power after Yanukovych fled will suppress the Russian-speaking population.
In Kiev, Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday discussed the possibility of holding a national referendum on whether the country should remain united or become a loose federation that allows the regions more powers. However, no consensus was reached on how such a referendum would be phrased or when it could be held.
Ukraine is already holding a presidential election on May 25.
Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who is running for president and whose party dominates the new government, spoke out Tuesday against excessive decentralization.
“While we are giving authority to local administrative bodies, we are obliged — under any circumstances — not to lose authority over the country,” Tymoshenko told lawmakers. She asked them to allow local self-governance “but not to lose the possibility of building a whole, unified, governable country, a country that is moving ahead under a strategy determined by all the elites and the people.”
Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops in areas near the Ukrainian border, feeding concerns that Moscow aims to use unrest in the east as a pretext for an invasion.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danylo Lubkivsky again accused Russia of fomenting the unrest in Ukraine and said the pro-Russian insurgents were violating an international agreement on overcoming the crisis in Ukraine.
“The east, though, still remains a trouble spot, with civilians being threatened and attacked. Russian terrorists are refusing to surrender arms,” he told reporters. “They have no real political agenda. They have no political goals and they have no intention of holding any dialogue. They simply execute orders from Russian authorities.”
Speaking after a meeting with Lamberto Zannier, chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Lubkivsky called on the pro-Russia forces to release the hostages they are holding, including the military observers, who are operating under the auspices of the OSCE.
Putin said both sides were at fault: the observers for going into eastern Ukraine and the pro-Russia forces for detaining them.
“I hope this conflict will be resolved, that they can leave the territory where they are unhindered,” Putin said during a visit to Minsk, the capital of Belarus. “But the participants in this process should draw the necessary conclusions from this.”