Armed pro-Russian separatists who occupied buildings in eastern Ukraine are refusing to leave, despite an amnesty offer and threats of “more concrete actions” to remove them next week.
The groups, which control buildings in around 10 towns after taking over two weeks ago, insisted on Friday that they were not bound by an international agreement ordering them to disarm. Ukraine’s government promised that it had already drafted a law guaranteeing them amnesty, but warned that it would escalate attempts to remove them after Easter.
“Hopefully, if those people are ready to leave the buildings, to surrender weapons, today, tomorrow, so we can encourage the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) mission to negotiate, to mediate and implement this,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia.
According to Reuters, he added: “But if this will not start in a few days, I think that after Easter there will more concrete actions.” His government has warned of “anti-terrorist” operations in the east of the country before, but there has been little evidence of attempts to use force on the ground thus far.
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He did however warn that the intensity of the operation would depend on the implementation of the agreement, which was brokered by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his US counterpart John Kerry in Geneva.
All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners International deal
Russia, Ukraine, the United States and European Union have agreed that: “All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.”
The threat came after Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk promised to give the pro-Russian separatists an amnesty if they laid down their weapons and left.
He said: “The government of Ukraine has already prepared a bill on amnesty. If people who illegally took weapons and captured buildings, lay weapons down and release these buildings, we think that these people should be given amnesty.”
But the separatists insisted that the agreement did not apply to them because they were not in possession of illegal weapons. Denis Pushilin, head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said that Mr Lavrov “did not sign anything for us, he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation”.
He insisted that the Ukrainian prime minister and acting president, who took power in February following months of protests against former president Vicktor Yanukovych, should quit their offices, as they took them over “illegally”.
But Alexei, another separatist in Slaviansk acknowledged that the Geneva talks had changed the situation. According to Reuters, he said: “It turns out Vova doesn’t love us as much as we thought,” using a diminutive term for Putin, who is viewed by many of the separatist militias as their champion and protector.
In Slovyansk, a city that has become a flashpoint in the crisis after men with Kalashnikovs took control last weekend, leaders of the pro-Russian groups met inside one of the seized buildings to decide how to respond to the Geneva agreement.
Anatoly, one of the armed separatists who have taken over police headquarters, said: “We are not leaving the building, regardless of what statements are made, because we know what is the real situation in the country and we will not leave until our commander tells us to.”
Pro-Russian separatists have said they will not leave until activists whose protests helped topple the pro-Moscow president in February evacuate their barricaded camp known as Maidan.
But Mr Deshchytsia said: “This is about streets and buildings which are illegally occupied by protesters. As far as I know, Maidan is legal.”
Many of those on Maidan are suspicious of the government that took power through parliament after President Viktor Yanukovich fled to Russia and they say they will remain in place until after a presidential election scheduled for 25 May.