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The Ukrainian city of Odessa has long been a crucial hub for trade, as well as a rich prize throughout centuries of war and political intrigue. The port on the Black Sea is in contention again, this time in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports on a series of terror bombings in Odessa and a network of journalists, activists and security forces that's trying to stop them.
OLEG KONSTANTINOV: (Foreign language spoken).
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Oleg Konstantinov pulls up a map on the computer screen in a small, crowded newsroom in Odessa. It plots the location of 34 bombings in the city over the past year or so. Konstantinov is the editor of a news website called dumskaya.net. He and his fellow journalists have been looking for patterns in the data from the attacks and trying to figure out who organized them.
KONSTANTINOV: (Through interpreter) These bombings were obviously committed by different groups. We are basing that conclusion on the kind of targets they chose, the type of explosives they used, the timing of their attacks - actually, a quite a number of facts.
FLINTOFF: Security forces have arrested suspects in several of the attacks. And Konstantinov says they, too, fit a pattern - men who'd like to see Odessa and its regions split from Ukraine and become part of Russia. The process becomes a lot less analytical when you talk with people who've experienced the bombings, like Natasha Vasyuchenko. She works the night shift in a cigarette kiosk on a busy street in one of the grittier parts of Odessa. She says she was dozing when she heard the blast.
NATASHA VASYUCHENKO: (Through interpreter) Something like earthquake, you know, happened, and all cigarette just fall down. And then police appeared, and then I walked to the corner and saw this destroyed billboard.
FLINTOFF: A few minutes later, there was a second blast. Both bombs hit billboards that carried the slogan Crimea Belongs to Ukraine. The conflict with Russia began in February of last year, when Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Konstantinov says that unlike bombings in some Ukrainian cities, the attackers don't seem to be targeting civilians.
KONSTANTINOV: (Through interpreter) The impression is that these people are trying to get attention for their cause, rather than do real damage. In that sense, they're not acts of sabotage, but more like classical terrorist acts.
FLINTOFF: The implication, he says, is that the bombers don't want to alienate the population, in hopes that more Odessans will eventually embrace the separatist cause. Konstantinov refers me to another online journalist, Vera Zaporozhets, an editor at the website Southern Courier. We meet in a street cafe. She tells me the investigations of the bombing are complicated by the fact that Ukraine's security services have long been infiltrated by Russian agents.
VERA ZAPOROZHETS: You probably realize that there are Russian spies in Odessa in security service, and all these people still keep working in the police and prosecutors.
FLINTOFF: Zaporozhets says there's only a small group of security service officers who are really trying to prevent the terrorist attacks and that they're helped by civilian volunteers, like Vadim Labas. He's in a group that gathers information and passes tips along to the security services and journalists. Labas says he knows there's a danger of retaliation from the pro-Russian side.
VADIM LABAS: (Through interpreter) They have a list of people who oppose them and they promise that after they take over Odessa, there will be public executions of traitors in the football stadium.
FLINTOFF: We know it's a different dangerous situation, he adds, but we keep on fighting. Corey Flintoff, NPR News.
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