ODESSA, Ukraine — Outrage over the deaths of pro-Russian activists in riots in Odesa triggered new violence Sunday in the Black Sea port, where a mob of protesters stormed police headquarters and freed dozens of their jailed allies.
The activists had been jailed for their involvement in clashes Friday that killed more than 40 people — some died from gunshot wounds, but most from a fire that broke out in a trade union building. It was the worst violence in the Ukrainian crisis since more than 100 people died in Kyiv in February, most of them shot by snipers.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk visited Odesa on Sunday to try to defuse the mounting tensions and hinted strongly that he saw Moscow’s hand in the unrest spreading through southeastern Ukraine.
Odesa is the major city between the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March, and the Moldovan separatist region of Trans-Dniester, where Russia has a military peacekeeping contingent.
Concerns are mounting that Moscow ultimately aims to take control of a huge swath of southeastern Ukraine from Trans-Dniester to Russian-dominated industrial areas in the east. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who calls the area historically Russian lands, has said he doesn’t want to send in troops but will if necessary to protect his country’s interests.
Alexei Pushkov, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament who often expresses Kremlin views on foreign policy, suggested Ukraine was destined to be split apart.
“Through the justification of arson, military operations and the killing of Russians in Ukraine, the Kyiv government is destroying the basis for the existence of a united country,” Pushkov said on Twitter.
Yatsenyuk said Odesa police were being investigated for their failure to keep the peace during the riots and said he had ordered prosecutors to find “all instigators, all organizers and all those that under Russian leadership began a deadly attack on Ukraine and Odesa.”
Hours later, however, the police bowed to a mob of several hundred pro-Russian demonstrators who attacked their headquarters, smashing doors, windows and security surveillance cameras. Shortly after some of them managed to break into an inner courtyard, police released the detainees, who were swept up by the cheering, rain-dampened crowd that had been chanting “Freedom!”
The Interior Ministry said 67 activists had been released on prosecutors’ orders. Prosecutors, however, later said they had nothing to do with the release and accused the police of failing to carry out their duties. It was not immediately clear whether any activists were still being held.
Putin spoke by telephone Sunday night with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the latest in a series of discussions they have had about Ukraine. The Kremlin said they agreed on the importance of the role to be played by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and said Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, whose country currently chairs the OSCE, would visit Moscow on Wednesday.