Slaviansk: Gunfights, Disappeared Journalist—and the Mayor is Missing

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukraine Crisis Centers on City North of Donetsk

Slaviansk, a district center of about 120,000 people in northwestern Donetsk province, is increasingly the simmering epicenter of Ukraine’s crisis – and not only because of the gunbattle yesterday that has re-escalated tensions in the east. The masked soldiers and militiamen who control access to the city behind roadblocks of stacked tires have detained the mayor and at least one of two Ukrainian journalists who disappeared there in the past week.

The declared leader of Slaviansk’s unknown ruling junta, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying  that “fascists are trying to conquer us” and urging Putin to send “a peacekeeping force to protect the civilian population.”

Slaviansk also has been one of the toughest places to access for the civilian observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). An OSCE team will try to enter the city again today after turning back yesterday because of security concerns, Reuters reported. “It’s a mixed experience dealing with checkpoints and so forth,” Michael Bociurkiw told the agency. “There is a hardened attitude in Donetsk or Slaviansk, but some other areas are more accommodating,” he said.

The gunmen of Slaviansk today brought out reporter Irma Krat, 29, in a blindfold to show her briefly to other journalists. And the gunmen’s leader, Ponomaryov, has confirmed that his forces are holding Mayor Nelly Shtepa – for her own protection, he said — following an unspecified medical procedure. Shtepa went missing after she accused Ponomaryov’s pro-Russian force of looting and robbery, and rebutted his claim that the armed men are all local residents (and thus not Russian troops).

The young men who now guard the roadblocks and meticulously search the cars of anyone seeking to enter the city seem undecided about the future they’re fighting for, writes Stanislav Kmet, a journalist for Ostro, an independent news website in eastern Ukraine. Kmet spent a day walking around the city, photographing the barricades and speaking to masked men. They are not sure whether their region should join Russia or simply fight for independence as the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Kmet reports. But they want out of Ukraine – and somehow at the same time they hate being called “separatisti.” Indeed, that label – “separatists” – draws from them a quite aggressive reaction, Kmet says.

Beyond the checkpoints, the city seems to have hunkered down, its normally busy streets deserted these days. Neighbors gather to talk quietly here and there, but it is unclear that many people are going to work these days, Kmet writes.

slavianskmap reutersMayor and Journalists: Detained and Disappeared
Slaviansk’s gunmen produced one of two Ukrainian journalists who disappeared in the city in recent days, leading Irma Krat out of the state security building in a blindfold to speak to other reporters. A local militiaman said they were investigating Krat over suspicions that she was involved in “the mistreatment of riot policemen and a Russian journalist” who were detained last winter amid the pro-democracy demonstrations at Kyiv’s Maidan, Reuters says. Krat told reporters the gunmen were questioning her about her presence in Slaviansk.

Krat told the reporters that the gunmen have not mistreated her. She said she has seen no evidence in detention of Kyiv-based journalist Serhiy Lefter, a former reporter with Ukraine’s state television who had been writing for Ukrainian websites and for a Warsaw-based pro-democracy group, the Open Dialog Foundation. Lefter disappeared April 16, two days after reaching Slaviansk, the foundation says. Slaviansk’s gunmen have not commented on his disappearance.

Also still missing is Slaviansk Mayor Nelly Shtepa, who initially voiced sympathy for the gunmen in a TV interview after they took control of the city nine days ago. They were local boys whose demands for greater power for Ukraine’s provinces were legitimate, said Shtepa, a member of the dominant political party of eastern Ukraine, the Party of Regions once led by former President Viktor Yanukovych.

But several days later, Shtepa changed her mind, telling Russia’s independent internet television channel, Dozhd, that she did not know who the gunmen are, that they are not local, and that they had committed looting and robbery. According to the website Slavgorod, Shtepa was last seen sitting in the seized city hall waiting to speak with Ponomaryov, who has displaced her as the city’s visible authority. On Friday, Ponomaryov said Shtepa is in his forces’ custody. “She has had a small crisis, she had an operation. She’s in normal condition now and has resigned her position,” said Ponomaryov.

Mysterious Shootout
The 3 a.m. shootout outside Slaviansk killed between one and five people, according to conflicting reports by Ukrainian authorities and Russian news media. Russia has blamed Ukrainian militants, while Ukraine’s national security service, the SBU, said the attack was staged by foreign (meaning Russian) provocateurs.

Ponomaryov blamed the attack on the Right Sektor, a nationalist group that battled Yanukovych’s police during the Maidan demonstrations. As proof they offer a business card imprinted with the name of Dmitro Yarosh, the Right Sektor’s overall leader. Ukrainian social media are buzzing with debate over the reported gunfight and the business card, which was displayed in pristine condition after gunmen said they found it in the debris of one of the burned-out vehicles destroyed in the battle.

Image: A pro-Russian armed man escorts Ukrainian journalist Irma Krat after news conference in Slaviansk, April 21, 2014. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)