Ukraine president decries sovereignty – Militants hold Red Cross workers for 7 hours

-MARIUPOL: As two of the most tense regions in eastern Ukraine prepare to vote on declaring sovereignty, the country’s acting president is warning them against self-destruction. Today’s ballots seek approval for declaring so-called sovereign people’s republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where pro-Russia insurgents have seized government buildings and clashed with police and Ukrainian troops.

At least seven people died Friday in clashes in the city of Mariupol. The city remained on edge yesterday, with barricades of tires blocking some streets in the city center. The referendums are being conducted by the insurgent movements and are not regarded as legitimate by Kiev or the West. The elections chief of the insurgents in Donetsk, Roman Lyagin, was quoted by news agencies as saying early voting in Mariupol and one other district had begun early because of rising tensions there.

Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov, in comments posted on the presidential website yesterday, said supporters of independence for the east “don’t understand that this would be a complete destruction of the economy, social programs and general life for the majority of the population.” “This is a step into the abyss for the regions,” he said. The hastily arranged referendums are similar to the March referendum in Crimea that approved secession from Ukraine. Crimea was formally annexed by Russia days later.

But organizers of the eastern vote have said that only later will a decision be made on whether they would use their nominal sovereignty to seek full independence, absorption by Russia or to stay part of Ukraine but with expanded power for the regions. Turchynov and Ukraine’s interim government came to power in February following the ouster of Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests in Kiev. Moscow and many in Ukraine’s east denounce the government as a nationalist junta and allege that it intends to trample on the rights of eastern Ukraine’s Russian-speakers. More than 30 people have been reported killed as Ukrainian forces mount offensives to retake some eastern cities now under the effective control of insurgents.

In the remarks issued yesterday, Turchynov said the government was willing to negotiate with representatives of the east, but not with anyone he called “terrorists whose task is the destruction of the country, a task put forth by their masters.” Kiev claims Russia is fomenting or directing the unrest in the east, with the goal either of destabilizing Ukraine or finding a pretext for invasion.

Meanwhile, pro-Russian militants held eight Ukrainian and one Swiss Red Cross workers hostage for seven hours in the rebel eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, beating one before freeing them early yesterday, a Red Cross official said. A spokesman for the self-styled “Donetsk People’s Republic”, which is holding a referendum today on breaking with Kiev, said the workers had been detained on Friday evening by rebel activists on suspicion of espionage. He could not clarify the nature of the accusations leveled against them or say where they had been held.

Jacques Barberis, deputy head of the International Red Cross mission in Ukraine and a Swiss national, said that he was in the group of nine volunteers from Donetsk and Kiev arrested in the Red Cross building in Donetsk. Barberis said one person was beaten by militants. “I can confirm one (person) was beaten, he is now at home… others are well,” he told Reuters by phone.

The treatment of the others from the group was “not bad,” Barberis said, adding he and volunteers from Kiev should return to the Ukrainian capital by mid-day today. Red Cross headquarters in Geneva said simply that there had been “some kind of incident last night”.

Another Ukrainian Red Cross official in Kiev who asked not to be named, said that the institution had sent a report about the event to the Interior Ministry. He did not elaborate. The Donetsk-based Novosti Donbassa website said the hostage takers had also seized large stores of medicine from the Donetsk office. The Red Cross website said medication had been delivered on May 7 to Donetsk head office for distribution in the region, where there has been heavy fighting in recent days between pro-Russian militants and Ukrainian security forces. – Agencies

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