UPDATE: Violent clashes erupted in Donetsk on Monday evening. Watch new videos below.
The crisis in eastern Ukraine continued to escalate today, as violent clashes erupted in Donetsk, pro-Russia militants seized yet another municipal administration building — this time in the town of Kostyantynivka, — and the mayor of Kharkiv was shot in the back.
Meanwhile, gunmen in Sloviansk continue to hold several hostages, including Ukrainian journalists, activists, security service members, and local politicians, as well as seven unarmed European military monitors. A third tortured body also turned up outside the city, in the same place that two other corpses were discovered on April 19.
Gennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, was shot in the back, reportedly while jogging on a local highway, and is “fighting for his life,” officials said in a statement.
The circumstances of the incident remained unclear, with some initial reports suggesting that Kernes was riding his bike and others suggesting that he was taking a swim when he was shot.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, has been the site of protests and clashes in recent weeks. But after Ukrainian forces pushed out rebels that had briefly occupied a local government building, the city remained largely spared by the violence that has engulfed the rest of the region.
Kernes, a former ally of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych and outspoken anti-Maidan critic, had recently softened his position towards the new Kiev authorities — some say in a “flip-flop” to stay in office.
Speaking at a press conference today, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk and a leader of pro-Russia forces in the Donetsk region, denied that separatists were behind Kernes’ shooting.
Ukraine’s interim president Oleksandr Turchynov ordered an investigation into the incident.
"It was not a shot at Kernes, it was a shot at Kharkiv,” Kernes’ friend and presidential candidate Mykhailo Dobkin told reporters.
The video below shows Dobkin and the doctor who operated on Kernes speaking to reporters about the mayor's condition.
Meanwhile, about 30 armed militants in the city of Kostyantynivka stormed the local city council building and set up barricades outside — a familiar scene in eastern Ukraine, where at least 10 cities and towns have been similarly taken over by pro-Russia forces.
Reports also emerged that gunmen had seized a local police station, though Ukraine’s interior ministry denied that claim.
The videos below show the occupied city council building in Kostyantynivka, protected by barricades and armed, masked men in fatigues.
Armed men seized a local administration building in the eastern city of Kostiantynivka on Monday.
Also on Monday, police found a third tortured body outside Sloviansk, in the exact spot where the mutilated bodies of local councilman Volodymyr Rybak and 19-year-old student Yuriy Popravko were found earlier in the month.
A Ukrainian soldier was killed today in an explosion in the Donetsk region, authorities said.
In Donetsk city, a pro-unity rally erupted into violence as pro-Russia separatists armed with bats and guns reportedly disarmed some riot police officers and attacked demonstrators.
The videos below show scenes from the clashes.
Separatists have proclaimed the region the independent “People's Republic of Donetsk,” and have started distributing fliers calling for a Crimea-inspired referendum to take place there on May 11.
Western governments and human rights observers have repeatedly condemned the deteriorating situation in eastern Ukraine and particularly in Sloviansk, where up to two dozen people have been kidnapped, detained, and accused of being “spies.”
The US government imposed a new round of sanctions today — including freezing assets and imposing visa bans — on seven individuals close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Washington also imposed restrictions on defense exports and measures on 17 Russian companies.
The White House has repeatedly backed Kiev’s accusation that Russia is behind the unrest in eastern Ukraine.
In a detailed report released on Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Ukrainian authorities to investigative a lengthy list of alleged abuses, on Western governments to pressure them to do so, and on Russia to help secure the release of international observers as well as put pressure on pro-Russia militias in the region to free all other captives.
“All politically motivated violence against journalists and activists is unacceptable and has to stop,” Hugh Williamson, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director said in a statement. “Ukrainian authorities need to redouble efforts to protect people of all political stripes. International actors with leverage over the parties should press them to end abuses, release those unlawfully held, and ensure those responsible will be held to account.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi