Donetsk, Ukraine— The Interior Ministry headquarters in eastern Ukraine’s largest city fell to pro-Russia separatists Tuesday after a five-hour gunbattle that erupted hours after the Ukrainian president said the rebels were not serious about peace and ended a cease-fire.
The shaky cease-fire had given European leaders 10 days to search for a peaceful settlement, and its end raised the prospect that fighting could flare with new intensity in a conflict that has already killed more than 400 people since April.
In Tuesday’s clashes, rebels fought for more ground, and badly trained and disorganized government troops seemed incapable of crushing the mutiny.
President Petro Poroshenko had called a unilateral cease-fire to try to persuade the rebels to lay down their weapons and hold peace talks. Some of the rebels signed onto the cease-fire as tentative negotiations began, but each side accused the other of repeated violations.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that substantive talks with representatives in eastern Ukraine had failed to start in earnest and that the cease-fire announced by Poroshenko amounted to an ultimatum to the rebels to disarm.
The Russian leader also denounced the Western threat of sanctions as blackmail.
Russia has cast February’s ouster of Ukraine’s former pro-Moscow president following massive protests as a coup conducted by radical nationalists and neo-Nazis.
In Donetsk, the capital of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, many streets were deserted, and gunfire filled the air Tuesday as rebels besieged the headquarters of the regional Interior Ministry. The rebels eventually captured the compound.
Panicked residents fled the fighting.
“I was driving and some people appeared with automatic weapons,” said a man named Vitaly, who said he was too fearful to give his last name. “They put me and my girlfriend on the ground and then they said: ‘Run away from here!’
“I don’t know who is fighting whom. We are standing here. We are afraid and shaking,” he exclaimed.