Ukraine accused Russia's President Vladimir Putin of orchestrating the seizure of state buildings in two eastern Ukrainian cities by pro-Russia protesters on Sunday, in a further escalation of tension between Kiev and Moscow.
Protesters waving Russian flags seized the regional administrative building in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, the third state premises in eastern Ukraine to be occupied by pro-Russian demonstrators on Sunday, Interfax reported.
Earlier in the day, similar groups had seized the regional administrative building in Donetsk and the offices of the state security services in Luhansk, demanding that regional lawmakers carry out a referendum on joining Russia.
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Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said police would restore order in both cities without recourse to violence. He accused Ukraine's ousted president Viktor Yanukovich, whose political base was in Donetsk, of conspiring with Putin to fuel tensions.
"Putin and Yanukovich ordered and paid for the latest wave of separatist disorder in the east of the country. The people who have gathered are not many but they are very aggressive," Avakov said in a statement on his Facebook page.
"The situation will come back under control without bloodshed. That is the order to law enforcement officers, it's true. But the truth is that no one will peacefully tolerate the lawlessness of provocateurs," he said.
Ukraine's Acting President Oleksander Turchinov called an emergency meeting of security chiefs in Kiev and took personal control of the situation, the parliamentary press service said.
Mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine has seen a sharp rise in tensions since Yanukovich's ouster in February and the installation of a pro-European government in Kiev.
Branding the new Kyiv government illegitimate, Russia has annexed Ukraine's Crimea region citing threats to its Russian-speaking majority, a move that has sparked the biggest standoff between Moscow and the West since the end of the Cold War.
More than 1,000 people protested in Donetsk on Sunday before breaking into the regional administration building where they hung a Russian flag from a second floor balcony, a Reuters witness said. Protesters outside cheered and chanted "Russia!".
In the Luhansk protest, Ukrainian television said three people were injured. Police could not confirm the report.
Talking to the crowd over a loudspeaker, protest leaders in Donetsk said they wanted regional lawmakers to convene an emergency meeting to discuss a vote on joining Russia like the one in Ukraine's Crimea region that led to its annexation.
"Deputies of the regional council should convene before midnight and take the decision to carry out a referendum," said one of the protest leaders without identifying himself.
A local Internet portal streamed footage from the seized building, showing people freely entering and exiting. Soviet-era music was being played over loud speakers outside.
The building houses the offices of regional governor Serhiy Taruta, a steel baron recently appointed by Kiev to rule a region with close economic and historic ties to Russia.
"Around 1,000 people took part (in the storming of the building), mostly young people with their faces covered," said Ihor Dyomin, a spokesman for Donetsk local police.
"Around 100 people are now inside the building and are barricading the building," he added.
'We don't want to join the EU'
In Luhansk, Reuters television showed images of hundreds of people outside the state security services building in Luhansk and a policeman in riot armour being carried away on a stretcher.
Ukrainian television said the Luhansk protesters were demanding the release of people detained by security services in recent days as well as a referendum on joining Russia.
"We don't want to join the EU, we don't want to join NATO. We want our children to live in peace," an unnamed woman told Ukraine's Channel Five in Luhansk.
Ukraine's state security services said on Saturday they had detained 15 people in Luhansk suspected of planning to overthrow the authorities and had confiscated hundreds of rifles, grenades and petrol bombs.
Pro-Russian demonstrators have held rallies in several eastern Ukrainian cities in recent weeks, not far from the border with Russia, where Moscow has assembled tens of thousands of troops.