In Eastern Ukraine, Demands For A Vote Boil Into Arrests

Pro-Russia demonstrators have taken over government offices in Donetsk and other major cities in eastern Ukraine. They're demanding a vote on whether the region should leave Ukraine and join Russia.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia today of stirring unrest in eastern Ukraine. He says Russian special forces and agitators are behind the seizure of government buildings in the region. Thousands of Russian troops and armored vehicles are masked nearby just over Ukraine's border with Russia.

CORNISH: The Ukrainian government says it ended the occupation of one office building in the eastern city of Kharkov today, arresting 70 separatists. But further south in Donetsk, pro-Moscow militants are still in control of a local government building. They say they won't leave until the region gets to vote on independence from the rest of Ukraine. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Donetsk.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: I'm standing in line in the square in central Donetsk, which is where huge protests started on Sunday. Now the square is virtually empty except for somebody feeding pigeons. On the far end, there are a few tents with flags flying over them and there's no Ukrainian flag. There are Russian flags and Soviet flags. Let's talk to some of these people staffing the tents.

In Kiev, they say this protest is instigated by Russia. What do you say in response?

The whole crowd is saying (foreign language spoken), shaking you heads, waving their your fingers, no, not Russia protest.

VLADIMIR YURIVITCH: Nyet.

SHAPIRO: A man named Vladimir Yurivitch(ph) shouts, the protests in Kiev were organized with European and American money. It is you who funded neo-fascism. To people here in eastern Ukraine, Kiev is a land of right wing nationalists, even fascists. These people insist that they are not separatists, as the Ukrainian government describes them. Instead, they say they just want regional autonomy. Americans would call it state's rights. A woman named Natalia says it's the protestors in Kiev who threw Molotov cocktails, not here.

NATALIA: We want to communicate with people who are our family and our brothers, Russia (foreign language spoken) Russia, one nation.

SHAPIRO: I guess the question is, if you have to choose between aligning with Kiev or aligning with Moscow, what do you choose?

NATALIA: About the government Kiev right now? No, Russian. I pick Russian as (unintelligible) because our...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

SHAPIRO: It's just a firecracker. No gunfire here yet, but a few blocks away, the atmosphere feels more tense.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: This local government building has a huge crowd in front of it with militaristic music playing, balloons in an arch, red white and blue, the colors of the Russian flag and an enormous crowd outside. On one hand, there are guys wearing balaclavas and carrying lead pipes, pacing behind barricades of razor wire tires and sand bags. There are Molotov cocktails in a corner. Everyone insists they're only for defense.

On the other hand, there are kids and families sitting on the grass in front of this building like it's a picnic. A woman in heavy makeup and stylish clothes is chilling with her tiny dog. There are lots of guys in their late teens and early 20s here. Alexi, who won't give his last name, is 24. He wears a hardhat and an anti-fascist black and orange ribbon.

ALEXEI: (Through interpreter) These guys are metal workers and coal miners. We're just simple workers. People say we're paid to be here. That's not true. No.

SHAPIRO: Alexi confesses that he doesn't think this area will ever leave Ukraine, but he has demands, he says, regional autonomy, respect for Russian-language speakers and he plans to stay here until those demands are met. Will that take weeks or months? He says, hopefully, not that long. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Donetsk.

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