By Peter Leonard Associated Press
LUHANSK, Ukraine — Ukraine’s Security Service said Wednesday that 56 people held inside the agency’s local headquarters in the eastern city of Luhansk by pro-Russian separatists have been allowed to leave.
The Luhansk security services building was among several government offices seized by pro-Moscow groups Sunday in an escalation of protests against the interim government in power since the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February.
On Tuesday, security services said separatists inside the building, armed with explosives and other weapons, were holding 60 people hostage. It was not immediately clear if the 56 allowed to leave were among that number, or how many people were still being held.
Serhiy Tyhipko, a lawmaker associated with the previous Ukraine government and who is now in opposition, said he was able to enter the seized building Tuesday night and claimed there were no hostages inside. He urged Kiev to take note of the protesters’ demands.
“The authorities are not listening to the southeast. People are putting forward certain demands, but nobody hears (them) and doesn’t want to react,” Tyhipko was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
All the cities affected by the uprisings are in Ukraine’s industrial heartland in the east, which has a large population of ethnic Russians and economic and cultural ties to Russia are strong. Many residents are suspicious of government that took power in February.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the standoff in Luhansk and the two neighboring Russian-leaning regions of Donetsk and Kharkiv must be resolved within the next two days either through negotiations or through the use of force, the Interfax news agency reported.
“The regime of anti-terrorist operation in all three regions is still in force and we can begin carrying out all planned actions at any moment,” Avakov was quoted as saying. There was little immediate evidence of any major deployment of Ukrainian special forces at the site.
Avakov was speaking as anti-government protesters in Luhansk erected high barricades along a thoroughfare running in front of the security service premises.
Overnight, speakers at a gathering in front of the building condemned the government in Kiev and renewed demands to be allowed to hold a referendum on declaring autonomy for their region. That demand is similar to one that preceded Crimea’s annexation by Russia.
The Ukrainian government and the U.S. have accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest as a pretext for another Russian military incursion similar to last month’s takeover of Crimea. Up to 40,000 Russian troops are massed along the Ukrainian border, according to NATO.
Speeches at the rally were occasionally interspersed with chants of “Russia! Russia!” and an unidentified speaker won chears as he listed names of prominent politicians that he suggested should be executed.
Those occupying the building have issued a video statement warning that any attempt to storm the place would be met with force.
In the video, posted by Ukrainian media, a masked man identified the occupiers as Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and warned the authorities against trying to retake the building. “Welcome to hell, then!” he said.
The security services said negotiations with the separatists were continuing and that parliamentary deputies had been able to enter and leave the building unhindered.
The Russian Foreign Ministry hit back at the West on Wednesday, calling for the U.S. to stop using international organizations as a means of “exacerbating tensions surrounding Ukraine.”
“The daily activity of Russian troops on national territory does not threaten the security of the U.S. or other member states of the OSCE,” the Russian statement said. “Attempts to accuse Russia of a buildup of troops are unfounded.”