KIEV, Ukraine — The mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city was shot in the back Monday and hundreds of men attacked a peaceful pro-Ukraine rally with batons, bricks and stun grenades, wounding dozens as tensions soared in Ukraine’s volatile east.
One presidential candidate said the mayor was deliberately targeted in an effort to destabilize the entire city of Kharkiv, a hub of 1.5 million people.
Armed insurgents tacitly backed by Moscow are seeking more autonomy in eastern Ukraine — and possibly even independence or annexation with Russia. Ukraine’s acting government and the West have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest, which they fear Moscow could use as a pretext for an invasion.
Ratcheting up the pressure, President Barack Obama’s government levied new sanctions on seven Russian officials and 17 companies with links to President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. The U.S. also revoked licenses for some high-tech items that could be used by the Russian military.
In Brussels, the European Union moved to add 15 more officials to its Russian sanctions list to protest Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine. That decision, reached by the ambassadors to the EU’s 28 nations, was being formally confirmed by the EU’s governments, officials told The Associated Press.
In the eastern city of Donetsk, about 1,000 demonstrators carrying Ukrainian flags marched through the streets to hold a pro-Ukrainian rally Monday night. They were attacked by several hundred armed men shouting “Russia!”
Police attempted to hold the pro-Russia men back but then largely stood aside as dozens of protesters were battered.
Hennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, was shot in the back Monday morning while cycling on the outskirts of the city, his office said. He underwent surgery and was reported by the hospital to be in “grave but stable” condition.
Officials have not commented on who could be behind the attack on the mayor — but Kernes was a man who could have angered both sides.
Kernes’ friend and former Kharkiv governor, Mykhailo Dobkin, told journalists the attackers had aimed at Kernes’ heart and wanted to kill him to destabilize the city
“If you want to know my opinion, they were shooting not at Kernes, but at Kharkiv,” he said.
Dobkin is among several candidates running in Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election, which the interim government says Russia is trying to derail.
Kernes was a staunch opponent of the pro-West Maidan movement that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych in February and was widely viewed as the organizer who sent activists from eastern Ukraine to harass demonstrators in Kyiv.
But he has softened his stance toward the new Kyiv government. At a meeting of eastern Ukrainian leaders and acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk earlier this month, Kernes insisted he does not support the armed pro-Russia insurgents and backed a united Ukraine.
Kharkiv is in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia gunmen have seized government buildings and police stations and set up roadblocks to demand greater autonomy or even annexation by Russia. But unlike the neighbouring Donetsk region, Kharkiv had been largely unaffected by the insurgency — something Kernes has been credited with. Its administration building was briefly seized earlier this month but promptly cleared of pro-Russia protesters.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the attack on Kernes, along with other events, “indicates that it isn’t possible to speak of any ’peaceful’ pre-election campaign in Ukraine.”