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Pro-Russian demonstrators overwhelm Donetsk police when crackdown backfires

May 1, 2014 at 6:19 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Russian President Vladimir Putin today told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Ukraine must remove its military from the country’s southeastern region to resolve the showdown with pro-Russian militants. This comes after the acting Ukrainian president said his government’s security forces had lost control of the area.

James Mates of Independent Television News reports from Donetsk.

JAMES MATES: They must have guessed what was coming. In a rare show of resistance, well-equipped, but clearly nervous riot police decide to take as a pro-Russian May Day march approaches.

And in moments, it starts, the sheer weight of numbers driving the police back. First, they release some tear gas, but much too close to their own lines to be effective. Then come stun grenades thrown repeatedly into the crowd. It drove them back, all right, but incited even greater fury.

The police position was becoming completely untenable. They were forced back inside the building. This is the last official building, the last government office in Donetsk that was still showing any loyalty to Kiev. It is paying the price for that. Now the rioters’ anger turned on the building itself, rocks, then petrol bombs in what appeared to be a concerted attempt to burn it down.

That forced the now beleaguered police into a courtyard, one group standing behind their shields. Another crouched under theirs to form a dome, something like a Roman tortoise formation, against the hail of rocks and paving stones that were raining down.

“Fascists, fascists,” they scream, but the police they had surrounded were completely helpless, surrender their only option. The mob, now inside the compound, stripped them of shields, helmets, and protective vests.

In small groups, clearly very frightened men were frog-marched away. One policeman had his balaclava ripped off. All of them run a gauntlet of insults and spitting. The prosecutor’s office, its files and criminal records all now in the hands of those who would be rid of the government in Kiev. Police resistance had proved futile, the only effect, to let weapons and equipment fall into the hands of their enemies. They’re unlikely to try it again.