Beatings, arson target pro-Kiev reporters in Ukraine's rebel east

Nicolas Miletitch
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An armed man in military fatigues guards a barricade outside the regional administration building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on April 19, 2014

The newspaper's edition was set, ready to print, when the assailants came at 2 o'clock in the morning, Molotov cocktails in hand.

"We heard someone beating violently against our windows. They ripped off the shutters and broke the glass. Then they took two 1.5 litre (half gallon) bottles, filled with petrol, and they burnt the place."

That, the daily's director Igor Abyzov tells AFP, was the attack suffered in the early hours of last Thursday by his publication Pro Gorod, the only newspaper in east Ukraine that is opposed to the pro-Russian separatist surge that has erupted in the region.

"We managed to put out the fire, otherwise everything would have gone up in smoke. The firemen -- who are stationed just two minutes away -- took 20 minutes to respond to our call, when it was all over. There's extensive damage," he said.

The crime is just one of many besetting Ukrainian journalists writing for Pro Gorad, located in the town of Toraz, population 70,000. They also risk beatings by club-wielding militants.

Abyzov, who stands using a crutch after two thugs beat him up and broke one of his legs, said that "we are for the unity of Ukraine and against separatism".

He added that several of the paper's journalists had also been assaulted. "They have tried to break our equipment, stole a stack of one of our editions."

"It's a little frightening to work under these conditions," admitted Anton Grabovski, one of the paper's journalists.

Inside Pro Gorod's newsroom, Grabovski, 26, who has a small Ukrainian flag next to his computer, said he wanted to stay to work in Torez, but was now having second thoughts because of the hostility.

"My girlfriend doesn't want anything to do with Russia. If we become part of Russia here, she wants to leave to live in Lviv, in western Ukraine. I'm starting to agree with her."

Grabovski said sentiment was divided in the region, even if the pro-Kremlin activists were the most vocal.

"Some of my friends are looking towards Russia," he admitted. "And others towards Europe. I have more to do with those looking West because myself, I want Ukraine to stay as one.

"Those who are looking to Russia, I find their ideas strange. I don't understand them very well."

- Trouble stirring -

The differences have not broken out into open fighting in Toraz, which has not had any of its public buildings occupied by the pro-Kremlin separatists. Armed men do not patrol its streets like in some other eastern towns.

But agitation is occurring.

Early Saturday, around 50 pro-Russian militants gathered in Torez to applaud a speaker's tribute to the arson attack against Pro Gorod.

"Our enemies are those citizens who are pro-Ukraine," he told the small crowd. He went on to urge Torez's residents to vote in a "referendum" east Ukraine plans to hold on May 11 calling for the region to become autonomous or part of the Russian Federation.

At the entrance to the town, a group of youths keep watch on the traffic from behind a makeshift, symbolic barricade, but they make no move to stop any vehicles.

The town hall flies the flag of the self-styled eastern Donetsk Republic, which hopes to see the region -- a Russian-speaking zone that is Ukraine's industrial heartland -- be embraced more closely by Russia.

Yet Abyzov asserted that "the pro-Russians represent only an insignificant part of the population".

The fact that the Saturday rally attracted only 50 people was proof of that, he said.

"But the recent events in Ukraine show us that anything can happen. The situation is unstable and it is impossible to predict anything at all."