Ukraine’s Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has admitted that authorities were “helpless” to control Russian-speaking south-eastern regions, where anti-government protesters continue to tighten their grip on power.

“I’d like to say frankly that at the moment the security structures are unable to swiftly take the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions back under control,” Mr. Turchynov told a meeting with regional Governors.

He spoke shortly after protesters seized city police and city council buildings in Horlivka, an industrial city of 240,000 residents not far from the provincial capital Donetsk. Activists said their aim was to ensure unhindered preparations for and smooth holding of a referendum on “state sovereignty” of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” set for May 11.

Mr. Turchynov blamed the security services for lack of progress in the “anti-terrorist operation” launched earlier in April in the east. He said regional police and other law enforcement agencies would be overhauled.

However, “overhauled” police units tend to be just as helpless. In Donetsk, where on Tuesday protesters occupied the regional government office, in the evening a crowd besieged the police headquarters demanding the disarmament and removal from the city of police personnel recruited from other regions by a new Kiev-appointed police chief. After hours of negotiations the police chief signed a resignation letter and ordered the bulk of the police force to depart the city leaving behind their weapons. Activists said the weapons would be guarded by officers who pledged allegiance to the “Donetsk Republic.”

Mr. Turchynov said that Kiev’s “number one task” was to prevent revolt spreading “from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to other Ukrainian regions.” He announced plans to set up armed civilian “territorial volunteer militia” units to help beleaguered police and troops in the east.

Experts said the plan could trigger civil war in Ukraine by pitting Ukrainian nationalists against Russian speakers.

“We will rely, not so much on trained military who get paid for their work, as on real patriots, true citizens who are ready to defend Ukraine with arms in their hands,” the Acting President stressed.

Mr. Turchynov said that the Ukrainian armed forces had bee put on “full combat alert,” in the face of the threat of Russian invasion. The Ukrainian government news agency UNIAN quoted him as saying that there was a credible danger of Russia unleashing “a continental war” on Ukraine.

More In: World | International | News