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Armed pro-Russian militants raised the Russian flag in an eastern Ukrainian city on Saturday, deepening a stand-off with Moscow which, Kiev warned, was dragging Europe closer to a “gas war” that could disrupt supplies across the continent.
Men armed with pistols and rifles took over the police and security services headquarters in Slaviansk, about 150 km from the border with Russia.
Officials said the men had seized hundreds of pistols from arsenals in the buildings. The militants replaced the Ukrainian flag on one of the buildings with the red, white and blue Russian flag.
Some local residents helped the militants build barricades out of tyres in anticipation that police would try to force them out, a Reuters photographer at the scene said. But there was no sign that any police action was imminent.
The occupation is a potential flashpoint because if the militants are killed or hurt by Ukrainian forces, that could prompt the Kremlin to intervene to protect the local Russian-speaking population, a repeat of the scenario in the Crimea region when Russian troops were sent in.
Russia denies any plan to send in forces or split Ukraine, but the Western-leaning authorities in Kiev believe Russia is trying to create a pretext to interfere again.
Also, pro-Russian protesters stormed the police headquarters of Ukraine’s eastern city of Donetsk. The protesters were met no resistance but Ukrainian forces had been dispatched to the scene.
The Donetsk and Lugansk gunmen also said that they want to stage independence referendums on May 25.