Violent Protests Spread From Eastern Ukraine South To Odessa

Tensions remain high in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine. Violence has led to the worst death toll since February, including more than 30 pro-Russian separatists who died in a building fire.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's go now to Ukraine, where violent clashes have spread from the east to the south in the country's largest port city, Odessa. Violence over the weekend in Odessa left more than 30 people dead, most of them pro-Russian separatists who died when a building they were in was torched.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is covering Ukraine and joins us to talk about that and more.

Good morning.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, Soraya, Odessa had been relatively calm. How did it happen that so many separatists ended up dying there?

NELSON: Well, it seems that what's happening in the east is really causing tensions elsewhere and Odessa was certainly one of those places. What ended up being demonstrations initially turned into intense street clashes between pro-Kiev and pro-Russian protesters. And then the fire that ended up causing all these deaths, happened after somebody's pro-Russian protesters ended up in a building where other protesters started throwing Molotov cocktails into. And so, that went up in flames and a lot of these victims died of smoke inhalation, and also when they were trying to jump out of the windows.

And this sort of dramatic deaths and the scenes which, were of course, were played all over the Internet and on television, prompted even more protests by pro-Russian activists in Odessa and in Eastern Ukraine.

MONTAGNE: Well, Odessa is an important city there in Ukraine. What is the government - the Ukrainian government doing to calm the situation?

NELSON: Absolutely. I mean Odessa is a strategic port city in the south. And many here fear Russia will try and grab it the way it did Crimea some weeks ago. And Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk went to Odessa yesterday to try and calm the situation. He expressed solidarity with the victims and their families and called it a tragedy for a Ukraine.

He also launched an investigation into the fact that police didn't seem to do anything about the violence that was happening there, and he fired the Odessa police chief. But it's important to remember that the prime minister is also saying that pro-Russian activists, and even Moscow, were behind the classes to begin with.

MONTAGNE: Well, what has Russia then said about all of this?

NELSON: Well, the Kremlin rejects any claim of any sorts of involvement, and says that these are grassroots efforts on the part of people who feel sympathy with Russia. They blame Kiev authorities for what's happening. A spokesman, Dmitry Keskov - Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov - says that they are, quote, "up to their lows in blood." And then, officials in Moscow are also saying that steps will be taken to help the Kiev government establish a dialogue with pro-Russian separatists.

MONTAGNE: Well, OK. Back to Eastern Ukraine where those are Russian separatists have been mounting a huge onslaught onto the government, taking over buildings and whatnot. There are security forces from Ukraine there mounting an operation. What's going on exactly?

NELSON: Well, it's sort of a case of two steps forward and three steps back. The Ukrainian forces are moving very slowly, and even when they make gains they sort of stop. And those sorts of delays appear to be giving the pro-Russian separatists time to set up new checkpoints and take over other buildings.

But one thing that's important to note is that that this, I guess, operation, if you will, prompted the pro-Russian separatist leader in Slavyansk on Saturday to release seven European military monitors and their Ukrainian companions who were taken captive more than a week earlier. He said it was just too dangerous to keep them there any longer.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaking to us from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Since we talked to Soraya earlier this morning, there have been reports of gunfire in Eastern Ukraine. The defense ministry is reporting that at least four Ukrainian troops have been killed.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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