Ukraine: Terrorist attack in Kharkov results in four dead, hopelessness and insecurity
In the Czech Republic, the bloodshed caused by the shooting in Uherský Brod, the worst such incident in Czech history, has overshadowed media coverage of a terrorist attack committed last weekend against those participating in the "March for Dignity" in Kharkov to mark the first anniversary of the victory of the Maidan uprising. Throughout Ukraine, concerns have multiplied that a new phase of the civil war might be beginning in Kharkov involving an expansion of the war zone and the destabilization of the tense local situation in the run-up to municipal elections this fall.
Hope that the war will end, faith that the economic crisis will be overcome, and celebrations of the first anniversary of the fall of the former regime, coinciding with the Orthodox holiday of Maslenitsa (equivalent to Czech Masopust) - all of this brought the inhabitants of Kharkov together last weekend in the parks and streets of the town center to enjoy a beautiful day in anticipation of spring and try to believe, for at least a moment, that now everything will finally be better. Then an explosion cost the lives of four people, injured 10 others, and crushed all of those hopes.
While no more shots are being fired at the front, everyone still fears renewed violence and, in particular, terrorist acts. Reports are coming in from both sides that even though hostilities have ended, individual fighting units are now out of control and are taking their own initiative to act as self-appointed "protectors of order" and "deliverers of justice".
The units are still armed and in many cases are committing looting and rioting. Immediately after last weekend's deadly explosion, Mayor of Kharkov Hennadiy Kernes called on residents of the city not to let themselves be provoked into committing more violence or any other illegal retribution and to remain calm.
Anti-tank mine used to kill
The Kharkov coordinator of the Euromaidan celebration, Igor Tolmachev, and Police Lieutenant Colonel Vadim Rybalchenko, who paradoxically was in the city precisely to arrange for security measures during the march, were both killed by the explosion. A 15-year-old boy who was a random participant in the event passed away after several hours in hospital as a result of his injuries, and on Tuesday another 18-year-old boy also succumbed to injuries sustained during the blast.
Immediately after the explosion, an extensive manhunt was underway during which highways linking Kharkov to other cities were closed and the National Guard was summoned to the city. Police reported that an anti-tank mine triggered by a mobile phone had been used to kill people at the scene.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry launched heightened security measures after the incident, and Kharkov is practically in a state of war, as the city has become the site of anti-terrorism operations. Two hours after the explosion, police released the information that they had apprehended four persons suspected of the attack and of training terrorists, but on Monday, Deputy High State Prosecutor Volodymyr Huzyr said police still had no direct evidence that the detainees had actually contributed to preparing the attack.
During the evening hours of 26 February, the head of the Ukrainian Security Services (SNBO), Oleksandr Turchynov, announced that another five suspects had been arrested who might be responsible for the explosion. He subsequently informed the public of two more "terrorists arrested with multiple explosives and a working grenade launcher in the port city of Mariupol just before another planned explosion was to occur."
War of the radicals
Kharkov is the second-largest city in Ukraine, located not quite 200 km from the places where Ukrainian forces are fighting with separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk. The city is inhabited by predominantly Russian-speaking people and for more than a year has been disrupted by conflicts between local opponents and local promoters of the new government in Kiev that took power as a result of the Maidan movement.
The Kharkov hospitals are overflowing with war injured, and recently tensions have been enhanced by the intensifying economic crisis there. Some kinds of groceries and products have disappeared from the shops entirely, while others (buckwheat, flour, oil and sugar) are being rationed.
Several hostile groups of radicals are operating right in the city who are responsible for dozens of arson attacks, explosions and murders. On the side of those who promoted the Maidan movement, these are primarily radicals from the Right Sector and the ultra-nationalist Freedom Party, who were also represented among those who participated in last weekend's march; news server Romea.cz previously reported on one of the actions committed by this group in which they attacked the editors of an opposition newspaper.
It has since come to light that city councilors and police officers attempted to convince the organizers of last weekend's march not to go through with it given the tense situation, saying that the event would be highly risky and could become a target of attack. "This was a terrible error and we repeatedly warned them it might be. Hundreds of people were exposed to danger. A van happened to be parked at the scene of the explosion, and it blocked most of the explosive debris - without that, there would have been many more victims, God forbid," a Kharkov city councilor told the newspaper Vyesti.
The organizers, of course, were adamant. They insisted the event go forward.
Suspicion as to who committed the terrorist attack on the march, where participants carrying Ukrainian flags and Right Sector banners wanted to honor the victims of the shooting on the Maidan in Kiev as well as the victims of war, immediately fell in the beginning on the illegal pro-Russian radical outfit that calls itself the Kharkov Partisans and is fighting against the promoters of the Maidan movement and government forces. The Kharkov Partisans are most probably responsible for January's explosion in front of a courthouse that injured 12 nationalists and soldiers from the Right Sector, as well as a previous explosion in front of a military administration building where recruitment of Ukrainian forces was being organized last August (no one was injured in that incident).
This infamous terrorist group was initially labeled the culprit in last weekend's incident by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Interior Minister Avakov. They have also charged Russia with supporting the group.
Over time, of course, it has turned out that the original suspects detained were not the perpetrators. A video was posted to YouTube with a statement by one of the commanders of the Kharkov Partisans, Filipp Ekozyants, that: "We, the Kharkov Partisans waging a partisan war on the territory of Kharkov and the Kharkov region against the Kiev junta, thoroughly distance ourselves from the terrorist attack on the March for Dignity and declare that we have nothing to do with it. We have never planned and are not planning our actions in places where there will be a large number of civilians."
Ekozyants also states in the video that he has "reliable information" that this attack was a provocation. He alleges that Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov was behind it.
The Mayor against the Government
Most of the newspapers in Kharkov are now rife with speculation as to who is responsible for the attack and who might benefit from it. It is an open secret that Mayor Hennadiy Kernes is a thorn in the side of the government in Kiev and in particular of Interior Minister Avakov, with whom he has had personal disputes for many years.
While Kernes has accepted the Maidan movement and is respecting the new government's decisions, he is also an ethnic Russian and is frequently slandered by Kiev as being a Russian sympathizer because he also criticizes the Ukrainian Government and President. "This bloody terrorist attack could turn life in Kharkov, which is already disturbed, completely inside out. A state of emergency has been declared and the local elections will probably be cancelled this fall. It really could happen that the current leadership of the town will lose power. Before the explosion, Kiev was reproaching Kernes with being unable to suppress violence in the city, despite the fact that in recent months, almost 900 people have been arrested and imprisoned in Kharkov on suspicion of ties to separatists or terrorists," says political scientist Vadim Karasyev.
Those words are confirmed by a complaint made by former Ukrainian MP Inna Bogoslavska to the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General, who writes: "This terrorist action happened because no one was punished after the first explosion in January, and the main conspirator of the separatists, Kernes, was never held accountable. Everyone can see that he is disrupting the stability of the entire region."
Extortion or protection?
Smaller incidents also happened in Ukraine at the start of last week, this time in Zaporizhia, where operations at a metallurgical plant had to stop after several dozen fighters with the Ajdar volunteer brigade broke into the facility on the pretext of protecting it from terrorists. After negotiating with the management of the factory for several hours, the fighters eventually left the plant.
Last week another factory in Zaporozhe, the Rinata Achmetova metallurgical combine, grappled with a similar problem when Right Sector fighters repeatedly broke in and demanded, against the will of the factory management, that they be hired to protect it. They too eventually left at the urging of authorities.
Similar incidents, particularly ones of looting and rioting, are also happening on the other side of the front in territory controlled by the rebels. Dmitriy Tymchuk, the head of Information Resistance, an NGO press agency in Ukraine, announced Friday that leaders of the separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk are undertaking purges.
Tymchuk said he believes this may be because the leaders are not failing to maintain control over entire fighting units. Fighters, exhausted by the war, are looting abandoned buildings destroyed by the war and abusing the fact that they are armed, refusing to obey either the authorities or police forces established by the rebels.
The units concerned are the Oplot regiment and the Altai and Vostok brigades. A correspondent for the Russian opposition television station Dozhd, Timur Olevskij, has reported cases of fighters being killed in the People's Republic of Donetsk because there is no money for their salaries and they will no longer be needed once the fighting is over.
"There will be no third Maidan"
Once the fighting ends, there is much tense anticipation as to how the country will handle the return of armed soldiers and volunteer fighters from the front. Most of them are refusing to turn in their weapons.
Many fighters are sharply critical of the Ukrainian Government and President, and protests are being held more and more frequently in front of government buildings such as the National Bank and Presidential Palace. During the recent "March of Truth, March of the Righteous" in Kiev, the more radical demonstrators delivered the President an unlit Molotov cocktail as a warning and chanted: "There will be no third Maidan, this time we will execute you."
Tensions are being exacerbated by accelerating social problems, poor organization of aid to those fleeing areas destroyed by the war, the sharp fall in the value of the Ukrainian currency, and an another anticipated rise in gas prices (the third such in a row) by 30-50 %. The only thing Ukrainians can rely on is - as a joke making the rounds in Kharkov now has it - that spring will come one day.
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