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      May Day Protests in Eastern Ukraine Turned into a Violent Separatist Riot

      May 2, 2014

      On May 1, International Workers' Day, pro-Russian protesters marched through central Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, calling for a referendum on the region's future. Some were calling for the area to join Russia, while others favored becoming a federal republic inside Ukraine—but all wanted to separate from the interim government installed after the Euromaidan revolution.

      About 3,000 protesters gathered in Lenin Square before marching on to lay flowers at a First World War memorial. The protesters chanted in support of the referendum planned for May 11 and denounced the government in Kiev as a "fascist junta" while waving Stalin flags. The crowd wasn't entirely friendly: One journalist was accused of being a "provocateur" and bundled into a car and driven away by protesters wearing body armor, his destination unknown.

      The march moved on to a police station, where they were able to negotiate installing the flag of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk, before speakers called on the protesters to take over the nearby prosecutor's office.

      Outside the office, around 60 cops in riot gear stood together to protect the entrance. The protesters called for the prosecutor to come and meet them, but after five minutes everyone started shoving one another and things escalated. Stones were thrown, and the police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Eventually the police were forced back by the onslaught, and there was a brief lull while the wounded were removed from the scene and captured police were set free.

      The crowd then moved to the back of the building, where about 100 cops were gathered. The protesters hopped the fences and broke the gate down, surrounding the police and eventually forcing them to surrender. The cops handed over their shields, helmets, and batons before being led out through the crowds, getting kicked and spat on as they went.

      The day before, acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said his government were "helpless" in dealing with the security situation in Eastern Ukraine. As I watched what happened in Donetsk, it was hard to disagree. The police clearly had little fight in them, and they're probably feeling pretty embarrassed after being overpowered. Today, the Ukrainian government launched an operation to take the separatist stronghold of Slovyansk, and two of their army helicopters were shot down by pro-Russian separatists. The Kiev government's hold on the east of the country is getting more and more tenuous.

      Follow Henry Langston on Twitter.

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      Topics: ukraine, Donetsk, People's Republic of Donetsk, Russia, Eastern Ukraine, May Day, protests, International Workers' Day, Oleksander Turchynov, Slovyansk

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