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Government forces launch urban offensive in Eastern Ukraine ahead of referendum vote

May 9, 2014 at 6:05 PM EST
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Russian President Putin appeared at two major Victory Day celebrations today, drawing criticism from NATO and Ukraine for attending one of the events. In Moscow’s Red Square, in a show of military might, Putin presided over a ceremony honoring the Soviet Union armed forces’ victory in World War II over the Nazis.

Later, he made his first trip to the Crimean port of Sevastopol since the region was annexed by Russia. He told thousands there that incorporating Crimea had made his country stronger.

Back in Eastern Ukraine, unrest continued ahead of Sunday’s secession referendum, as government forces launched an offensive.

We have a report from Alex Thomson of Independent Television News.

ALEX THOMSON: The Ukrainian forces knew what they wanted and they came in force, the first time we have seen anything like this.

Their assault on Mariupol’s police station sustained, rocket-propelled grenades firer in city center streets, shooting where yesterday people were shopping — today, they were just trying to stop it all any way they could. Bodies were soon lying in the streets.

“How can a man with a broken arm be a fighter?” the crowd said. We saw two bodies. Kiev claimed they killed 21, many more injured, of course, as a city center became a battleground. Ukraine says it’s a legitimate military action to evict pro-Russia militias out of buildings they have occupied. Many here say it’s nothing more than the action of a fascist regime supported by the West.

WOMAN (through interpreter): We live here in our native land. Fascists are coming, occupying the place, and pushing us around.

ALEX THOMSON: Their mission completed at the police station, the Ukrainian forces moved out, abuse hurled by locals as they did so, leaving people here building barricades tonight, expecting more.

MAN: We like independent, independent region, you know? We like the independence. We’re no terrorists. We’re not killers or some criminals. We’re not criminals. We’re honest men.

ALEX THOMSON: In the regional capital, Donetsk, with their old shotguns, Kalashnikovs and cobbled-together uniforms, the people’s militia out on the street, no more masks these days.

Armed men, militias walking straight down the main boulevards of one of the biggest cities in the east of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian government can’t do anything about that. The Ukrainian government’s violent show of force in Mariupol, and the opposition’s armed force on the march in Donetsk, greeted with cheers and flowers from the crowds as they entered the city’s Lenin Square.

“Russia, Russia,” they chant, as a speaker reminds them that, today, Victory Day, is all about commemorating Russia’s victory over fascism 69 years ago. Clearly, for some on the streets, perceived fascism remains unfinished business.