Proclaim ‘People’s Republic of Luhansk’; announce referendum plans

Anti-government protesters have seized the government headquarters in yet another regional centre in eastern Ukraine even as Russia reiterated its pledge not to annex the country’s Russian-speaking provinces.

Thousands of unarmed activists on Tuesday stormed the regional government building in Luhansk, an industrial city of nearly 500,000 residents, after the deadline passed for their demand for the release of political prisoners and a referendum on the region’s autonomy from Kiev.

About 500 armed police barricaded inside the building offered no resistance and withdrew after the takeover. For the past two weeks, protesters in Luhansk have been in control of the local security service headquarters.

Activists have proclaimed a ‘People’s Republic of Luhansk’ and announced plans to hold the referendum simultaneously with a similar vote in neighbouring Donetsk on May 11.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Tuesday that Moscow had no intention of invading or annexing eastern Ukraine.

“We have absolutely no intention, and I stress it, to repeat the so-called Crimean scenario in Ukraine’s southeast,” Mr. Ryabkov said in an interview. “People in the region must just get a say in defining the future of their country.”

In Donetsk Region, protesters on Tuesday raised the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in five more towns and villages.

In other developments in eastern Ukraine, self-defence forces in Sloviansk, the flashpoint of anti-Kiev revolt, continue to hold seven NATO military observers captured two days ago, hoping to exchange them for arrested activists.

Kharkiv Mayor Gennady Kernes, who was shot in the back on Monday, was flown to Israel, where he had another surgery on Tuesday.

Thousands of Ukrainian troops deployed to crush anti-Kiev protests in eastern Ukraine have made no move since last week.

Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the Russian forces massed along the Ukrainian border for war games last Friday had returned to barracks after Ukrainian authorities promised not to use the army against civilians.

Mr. Shoigu assured U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel that Russia will not invade Ukraine, the Pentagon said in a statement on a telephone conversation the two men had late on Monday.

Russia has angrily reacted to new U.S. and European sanctions calling them a revival of Cold War exports restrictions.

“This is a revival of a system created in 1949 when Western countries essentially lowered an ‘Iron Curtain’ cutting off supplies of high-tech products to the Soviet Union,” said Mr. Ryabkov.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the European Union was “doing Washington’s bidding with new unfriendly gestures towards Russia.”

“If that is how someone in Brussels is hoping to stabilise the situation in Ukraine, then it is a clear indication of a complete lack of understanding of the interior political situation in that country,” the Ministry said, adding that the EU should be “ashamed” of its action.

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