Will Eastern Ukrainians turn out for this weekend’s secession referendum?

Scores of Ukrainian soldiers made their way through the streets of Mariupol with armored personnel carriers as part of an ongoing operation to evict the pro-Russian militias that have taken over government buildings in Eastern Ukraine. For a closer look, Hari Sreenivasan talks to Independent Television News’ Alex Thomson, who was in Mariupol during the conflict and reports from the city of Donetsk.

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    I spoke with Alex Thomson earlier today.

    Alex Thomson, thanks for joining us.

    What you saw today, have you ever seen the size of Ukrainian forces or the resistance this big?


    Well, you have hit on the central point here.

    As is the way with these events, there will be an enormous amount of, frankly, propaganda, and blame and attrition from both sides, but you do really need to focus in on what is new and what is, above all, indisputable about what happened today in Mariupol. This is a sizable city.

    Now, we have seen forces of Ukraine and we have seen armored personnel carriers and so forth penetrate into certain urban areas, big cities. Sometimes, that's easy for them to do for security reasons, not always a difficult event, and it's not particularly difficult in this city itself.

    Today, we saw those scores of soldiers. They needed a vast coach to transport them up to this police station at one point. There were armored personnel carriers. There were tracked vehicles with cannons. They looked like small tanks and there were rocket-propelled grenades. And they certainly used the weaponry in what was a sustained firefight.

    This is new in a center of a big city.


    What are the security concerns for this weekend's planned referendum vote?


    The security concern — I think the number one security concern here is that nobody has, frankly, the faintest idea of what the number one security concern is.

    Now, I don't wish that to sound flippant in any way, shape or form. But there are a number of factors which are completely unpredictable here. Clearly, we do not know what may or may not be the next target for this ongoing operation masterminded by Kiev, as they see it, to eradicate and evict what they see as terrorists. That's the term they use, these militias who've taken over government buildings.

    This is happening in a number of different cities large and small. So, we don't know what may be the next target, but clearly when and if that happens, that can provoke violence. As regards to the referendum, well, it's absolutely clear from everybody you speak to on the ground that that will go ahead. How many people will turn out, how many people feel it's safe to turn out, we just don't know.


    Any reaction on the ground to Putin's visit to Crimea today?


    The action that we have seen behind us, we naturally thought it might be gunfire, was a number of firework displays.

    And don't be surprised if you hear some bangs going off as we speak, because it is an enormous day, this Victory Day celebration of the Soviet effort, indeed success, in overthrowing and repulsing the Nazi fascist attack 69 years ago in the conclusion of the Second World War. So, that's what you're going to see.

    I think, as regards Vladimir Putin, Ukrainians — and I use that word across the length and breadth of this country — will absolutely take from that what they want to take. It doesn't matter, frankly, what Vladimir Putin does. He is going to be a hero. He is going to be the father figure. He is going to be the great leader, and, unquestionably, you have to say he and Russia are having a great streak of self-confidence at the moment.

    That is how many people will see him. Obviously, many, many other people in Ukraine will see him as a mastermind about — behind what is happening here, as someone who they allege is playing a huge part in destabilizing events on the street.

    I don't think either side is going to be shifted one iota, frankly, by what Vladimir Putin did or didn't do both in Red Square earlier in the day and more laterally when he flew into the Sevastopol in the Crimea Peninsula.


    Alex Thomson of ITN in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine, thanks so much.

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