Armed Pro-Russian Men Hold Police Station In Eastern Ukraine

In Ukraine, special forces are trying to take back the city of Slovyansk from encroaching pro-Russian militants. Correspondent Ari Shapiro gives NPR's Rachel Martin the latest.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Special forces in Ukraine have begun what they call an anti-terror operation. They're trying to take back a city where pro-Russian protesters set up roadblocks yesterday. People have been killed on both sides. That marks a major shift in this standoff which has remained relatively peaceful for the last week. NPR's Ari Shapiro is in Kiev, and he joins me now. Ari, what happened this morning? What's the latest?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Well, in the city of Sloviansk, armed men in fatigues were occupying government buildings and had blocked access to the city. This morning, special forces broke through at least two of those roadblocks. A third seems to still be in place. Photos show it being guarded by old women in headscarves. I can tell you, Rachel, from personal experience, these babushkas can be militant. They likely did not have to be coerced to stand there. In this area, there's a lot of sympathy for the protesters in Sloviansk and other eastern cities where demonstrators have seized government buildings.

Many people say those protesters could not have accomplished these takeovers without the cooperation of police and other locals. But this morning, the clash, as you say, really does seem to have entered a new phase.

MARTIN: So there have been other cities where pro-Russian separatists have taken over other buildings. How widespread is this?

SHAPIRO: It's a lot more widespread in just the last 24 hours. A week ago, demonstrators seized buildings in three cities, and the government, a few days later, reclaimed one of them without any loss of life. But yesterday, armed demonstrators took over police headquarters, city council offices, security services buildings in other cities dotted around eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border. For example, in the city of Donetsk, where protestors had been occupying a government building for a week, they marched down the street demanding that the regional police chief step down, which he did. And then they took over the police building. So after a week of relative stasis, things have gotten very intense very quickly.

MARTIN: Besides the special forces operation you mentioned, how is the Ukrainian government in Kiev responding to all this?

SHAPIRO: We're hearing a lot of strong rhetoric from the interior minister, who says this will not be tolerated. Last night, he called an emergency meeting of Ukraine's national security counsel. That meeting ended without any public statement from the participants. Until this morning, it was really unclear whether the interior minister's words would be backed up with actions because he had been using strong rhetoric for the last week. He set a 48 hour deadline to clear buildings. That deadline passed without any action, but now it looks like the government really is following through on its pledge not to allow this to continue.

MARTIN: And as we mentioned, there have been casualties on both sides in this conflict. How does that change the nature of the crisis?

SHAPIRO: Well, the big question now is whether Russian troops will intervene. Some protesters have in asking all week for Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to send tanks. We know that Russian forces have been massing near the border with Ukraine. Top Russian government officials had said last week that they would not get involved unless there was bloodshot. Now there has been bloodshed which changes the equation.

MARTIN: And lastly, Ari, Moscow has deflected any suggestion that they are responsible for what's happening in eastern Ukraine. But how much of this is an authentic uprising in the East, and how much is this about a proxy war of some kind between Moscow and Kiev?

SHAPIRO: It's really hard to tell. I spent several days talking with people around these barricades, and I was unable to detect any Russian presence. That, of course, does not mean it isn't there. The people who took over the buildings yesterday looked extremely coordinated and professional. But the protest leaders do include a lot of Ukrainians who are former Soviet military officers and have experience with this sort of thing. Whether Russia is playing an active role in this or not, the demonstrations do tap into a very authentic frustration the eastern Ukrainians feel with Kiev.

They believe that Ukraine's new government is moving closer to Europe, and they think that will hurt these regions along Ukraine's eastern border that share such close ties with Russia.

MARTIN: NPR's Ari Shapiro in Kiev. Thanks so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Rachel.

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