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‘We Cannot Wait Any Longer’: Ukraine’s Rebels Are Angry Over Putin's Referendum Delay

Putin called for a delay in the referendum vote scheduled for this weekend “in order to create the conditions necessary for dialogue."
May 7, 2014, 10:05pm
Image via AFP

On Wednesday evening local militia in Slovyansk, the heartland of the pro-Russia rebels who have seized control of large pockets of eastern Ukraine, appeared dismayed by the Kremlin's request to postpone their much cosseted referendum.

"We will not, we cannot wait any longer," said 48-year-old Sergey, an Afghan veteran and barricade guard in pro-Russia held Slovyansk. "I thought I would never take up arms again, but now I will fight to the very end."

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A vote on the future of the region was scheduled to be held in the rebel-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine this weekend. But following a meeting in Moscow with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Russia's president Vladimir Putin called a delay “in order to create the conditions necessary for dialogue."

The Kremlin has backtracked in its support for a regional referendum in eastern Ukraine, which had been scheduled for May 11.

It is unclear, however, whether the Kremlin still has the power to reign in the pro-Russia forces in several cities in eastern Ukraine, including Luhansk, Donetsk, and Slovyansk, where state administration and security buildings have been seized.

Last week Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted that Moscow had "essentially lost influence over these people, because it will be impossible to convince them to lay down arms when there's a direct threat to their lives."

"[Putin] is a coward. He's afraid of losing money," said Ruslan, a 7-foot tall Slovyansk rebel. "He will pay for this with a revolution in Red Square. Russian people will not stand by and watch this happen," added the barricade guard as he loaded sandbags into the back of a truck outside the Slovyansk rebel headquarters.

Around a dozen pro-Russia militia are thought to have been killed in the last week as a Kiev-backed anti-terror operation aimed at dislodging the rebels entered into its "active" phase.

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A further 42 pro-Russia protesters were killed in a blaze in Odessa, a port city in Ukraine's south, after being trapped inside a burning building following clashes with pro-Ukraine demonstrators on Friday.

The deaths have fuelled anger and pro-Russia sentiment in the region. Today four coffins were laid out in front of the church in the center of Slovyansk as funerals were held for three rebel fighters and a truck driver who died during clashes with the Ukrainian army on Monday. Tearful mourners crowded around bodies and covering them in carnations, a Christian Orthodox tradition in Ukraine.

Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette: The Invasion of Ukraine here.

But the anger in the air was also palpable.

"Glory to Slovyansk heroes," and "Russia, Russia, Russia," the crowd chanted as local militia groups, clad in camouflage and carrying Kalashnikovs, came to pay their final respects to the city's martyrs.

A separate funeral was held on the outskirts of Slovyansk on Wednesday for Irina Boevets, a 30-year-old teacher. Her open coffin was carried from near the family home to the cemetery in a procession led by a priest holding a cross aloft. The second civilian victim in just three days, Boevets was shot in the head by a stray bullet when she stepped out on to her balcony for a cigarette.

As Slovyansk grieved angrily, there were yet more violent clashes in Mariupol, an industrial port city in Ukraine's southeast. Ukraine’s army was ambushed by pro-Russia rebels en route to take back the city's administration building — which is under the control of a local militia group.

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According to a statement issued by the Interior Ministry in Kiev, an hour-long gun battle left a bus driver wounded and one attacker dead. Two rebels were reportedly detained during the incident.

Igor Kakidzanov, the defense minister of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, which has become the official face of the Ukraine's rebel movement, was reportedly among those captured.

In a worrying turn of events that is likely to fuel the anger of pro-Russia forces, photos emerged on social media of Kakidzanov being handcuffed naked next to Oleh Lyashhko, the leader of the Ukrainian Radical Party and its candidate in the presidential election.

Image via Facebook/Oleg Lyashko

In a gloating Facebook quote Lyashhko wrote: "The bastard confessed to collaborating with the FSB [Federal Security Services], to receiving money from them, and to taking part in the poisoning of Ukrainian military officer."

In a glimmer of good news, three Ukrainian security service officers from the elite Alpha squad were released following a prisoner exchange negotiated between the government in Kiev and the rebels.

Following their capture on April 27, the Ukrainian Alpha officers were paraded by the militia in front of the Russian press, blindfolded and badly beaten.

Among the three rebel prisoners released was Pavel Gubarev, who was held on charges of attempting to overthrow the government after leading the declaration for an independent People's Republic of Donetsk in April. Gubarev appeared today in military fatigues in front of the rebel HQ in Slovyansk, flanked by two pistol-packing militia guards, but declined to give comment.