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Fight against Ukraine rebels threatens more unrest

Saturday - 5/17/2014, 6:32am  ET

Workers of the Ukrainian company Metinvest clear away debris in a government building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, Friday, May 16, 2014. Local patrols by steelworkers have forced pro-Russia insurgents to retreat from the government buildings they had seized in a major city in eastern Ukraine, giving residents hope that a wave of anarchy was over. Mariupol is the second-largest city in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, one of two regions that declared independence Monday from the central government in Kiev. Citizen patrols began there earlier this week as Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, urged steelworkers at his factories to help police restore order. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

YURAS KARMANAU
Associated Press

MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) -- Steelworkers from plants owned by Ukraine's richest man retook government buildings from pro-Moscow insurgents, reversing the tide of rebellion and lawlessness that has gripped this industrial port and dealing a setback to anti-Kiev forces aspiring to merge with Russia.

Wearing overalls and hard hats, dozens of workers cleared away barricades of debris and tires outside the Mariupol city hall on Friday, scoring early successes against the pro-Russian forces, but threatening to open a new and dangerously unpredictable cycle of confrontation.

"People are tired of war and chaos. Burglaries and marauding have to stop," said Viktor Gusak, a steelworker who joined in the effort to banish the pro-Russia militants from Mariupol, the Donetsk region's second-largest city and the site of bloody clashes last week between Ukrainian troops and the insurgents.

About 75 miles (120 kilometers) to the north, armed backers of Ukrainian unity dressed in black seized control of a police station in a village just inside the troubled Donetsk region, vowing to expel the separatists through force if necessary.

The moves, which began Thursday in Mariupol and the village of Velyka Novosilka, were a blow to the separatists who have seized control of government offices in this city and a dozen others in the east.

Other similar and apparently unaccountable groups look to be emerging elsewhere in the chaotic east. Should they make substantial incursions, it is unclear whether they will be perceived as liberators or attackers acting on behalf of a little-liked government in Kiev. The latter could precipitate civil conflict.

Government forces have in recent weeks achieved only limited results in quashing the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics" -- armed groups that this week declared independence for their regions following contentious referendums. Polls have shown, however, that a majority of eastern Ukrainians support unity, though most are too fearful of the pro-Russian militias to say so publicly.

That has handed the initiative to expel the insurgents to forces acting independently of authorities in the capital, Kiev.

In Mariupol, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov's Metinvest holding group organized citizen patrols of steelworkers working alongside police to help improve security and get insurgents to vacate the buildings they had seized.

Until now, Akhmetov had been notable for his noncommittal stance during the turbulence that has for more than a month gripped the region that is home to his most lucrative industrial assets.

A video statement by the 47-year-old industrialist on Thursday made it clear that his loyalties are not so much with the Kiev government but with his native Donbass -- territory that encompasses the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. He called for major constitutional reforms, while preserving a united Ukraine.

"This is when power goes from Kiev to the regions. This is when authorities are not appointed but elected. And this is when local authorities take responsibility for people's real future," he said.

Independence or absorption into Russia would spell economic catastrophe for the region, he added.

Since President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster in February, Ukraine's new leadership has reached out to oligarchs for help -- appointing them as governors in eastern regions, where loyalties to Moscow were strong. Akhmetov, who served in Yanukovych's Party of Regions, has avoided such engagements and his attempt to set future terms on the future of the east may cause the government to bristle.

A representative of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic was also a party to the Akhmetov-brokered deal in Mariupol, but the insurgent group later disavowed its participation.

Instead, Donetsk People's Republic adviser Roman Manekin said in his own video address that Akhmetov should submit to the authority of the new would-be independent entity.

"We impatiently await such a statement. Otherwise, there will be no Akhmetov in Donbass," Manekin said.

Manekin didn't specify how the Donetsk People's Republic intended to enforce its demands.

German Mandrakov, who commanded the pro-Russian insurgents occupying city hall in Mariupol, said Friday that his associates fled, while he was "forced" to leave the building they had controlled for weeks.

"Everyone ran away," he said, using a vulgar Russian word for cowards. "Someone is trying to sow discord among us, someone has signed something, but we will continue our fight."

The citizen patrols organized by Metinvest now include some 100 teams consisting of two policemen and six to eight steelworkers, said police spokeswoman Yulia Lafazan.

In Washington, the White House welcomed moves by pro-Russian insurgents to leave government building they had seized in eastern Ukraine.

"We certainly welcome any indication that separatists who ... have seized buildings, who have set up roadblocks, stockpiled weapons, are vacating buildings and ceasing the kinds of activities that have only destabilized the situation in Ukraine and led to confrontations and violence," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

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