Tensions in Donetsk, with Ukraine's future at stake
Tempers flared Friday on Lenin Square in Donetsk -- a Russia-friendly heartland city in eastern Ukraine that has been swept by unrest since the ouster of former president and native son Viktor Yanukovych.
Pro-Russian activists have set up a round-the-clock picket on the square under a red Soviet flag with the hammer and sickle and they are calling for a secession referendum like the one planned in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
"Only Russia can help us so that our rights are not dragged through the mud!" said one protester, Natalya, an employee at a local beauty salon.
"There needs to be a referendum," she said.
This coal-mining region of the former Soviet state, next to the Russian border, has been riven by tensions between pro-Moscow activists and defenders of Ukrainian unity.
Militants occupied the regional government offices for three days, putting a Russian flag on the top before being dislodged by police on Thursday in an operation in which scores were arrested.
Rival demonstrations between the two groups brought thousands of people into the streets this week and degenerated into running street battles on Wednesday.
"After everything that happened, I watch the television and I tell myself: we have to secede," said one woman, who declined to give her name.
"I cannot live with fascists," she said, echoing the rhetoric used by Moscow in describing the new government in Kiev, which is supported by nationalist and ultra-nationalist activists.
Lyubov, a pensioner originally from Russia who has lived in Donetsk since 1972, comes up to the group.
"What's the point of joining Russia?" she said.
"We have been living here for so many years. I have children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. We are for Ukraine. Russia is our neighbour, that's all."
The protesters pounce on her, shouting: "What do you want, America?" "How much did you get paid?"
Alexiy Korpus, who said he was the "commander" of the encampment, admitted that actually joining Russia would be complicated but still wants a referendum on the status of the region.
"We want more federalism," said the 33-year-old, who spoke of concern about "anarchy like in the west".
- 'Russia means destruction' -
The protests in Donetsk have been relatively small, though often violent, and local authorities are taking the threat of separatism seriously.
Prosecutors have opened an inquiry for "threatening national integrity" against Pavel Gubarev, a local advertising executive who leads the pro-Russians and has declared himself the "people's governor".
After voicing defiance, Gubarev was arrested on Thursday and risks 10 years in prison.
Sergiy Taruta, a tycoon who was appointed governor by the new authorities in Kiev, on Friday met with civil society representatives who adopted a resolution calling for "an undivided Ukraine".
Sergiy Bogachev, deputy mayor in Donetsk, told AFP there were "signs of stabilisation" following Gubarev's arrest but conceded that the militant "still has supporters in the city".
The official said that the separatist movement in Donetsk is actually controlled only by "a small group" with "obvious influence" from Russia.
A few hundred metres from Lenin Square, the regional administration in the city centre is surrounded by riot police to prevent a fresh assault.
In front of them are scores of protesters from rival camps and the exchanges are tense.
Ivan Khitriy, a 75-year-old pensioner, holds a placard reading: "Putin: don't destroy Ukraine, give Crimea back to Ukraine"
"Joining Russia means destruction, going back centuries. I don't know how to say it any other way," he said.