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Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Ukraine prepares troops after armed men take buildings in the East

Kyiv prepares an armed response to the gun-toting pro-Russians occupying buildings in Slovyansk, Donetsk and Kramatorsk

Pro-Russian activists took over a police station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk on Saturday after a firefight, following the takeover of two other police stations in the region. Kyiv said it was preparing to send troops to tackle what it called an "act of aggression by Russia," pushing the conflict between the neighbors into a dangerous new phase.

The 20 men in Kramatorsk were apparently dressed in matching uniforms, mirroring the earlier occupation of police headquarters of Donetsk, another city in eastern Ukraine.

The fighters who entered there wore the uniforms of Ukraine's now-defunct riot police. The siege in Donetsk, the eastern city where pro-Russian protesters have occupied another government building for nearly a week, came hours after armed men seized local police headquarters in Slovyansk, a city about 55 miles away.

Unrest in the three cities was the latest sign of escalating unrest in eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population and has seen waves of protests since Kremlin-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in late February.

Witnesses said the men who entered the police building in Donetsk were wearing the uniforms of the Berkut, the feared riot police squad that was disbanded in February after Yanukovych's ouster. Berkut officers' violent dispersal of a demonstration in Kyiv in November set off vast protests in the capital that culminated in bloodshed in February when more than 100 people died in sniper fire; the acting government says the snipers were police.

It was not immediately clear if the men who occupied the Donetsk police building had made any demands.

It was also unclear if the local law enforcement agencies were still taking orders from Kyiv after the local police chief quit.

Kostyantyn Pozhydayev came out to speak to pro-Russian protesters at his offices and told them he was stepping down "in accordance with your demands," according to Reuters.

About 20 masked men armed with automatic rifles and pistols were guarding the entrance to the police station there, and another 20 were believed to be inside. They wore St. George's ribbons, a symbol of the Soviet Union's victory in WWII, which has become a symbol of pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine.

One of the attackers told The Associated Press that they had seized the building because they wanted to protect it from radical nationalists from western Ukraine and "the junta who seized power in Kyiv."

"We don't want to be slaves of America and the West," he said. "We want to live with Russia."

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Interior Minister Arsen Avakov pledged a "very tough response" to the seizure while local media reported special forces had been dispatched to the area.

Russia has built up forces in areas near the Ukrainian border, and the protesters allege that the authorities who took over are nationalists and "fascists" who aim to suppress the ethnic Russians in Ukraine, while the Kyiv authorities have accused Russia of fomenting the unrest as a pretext for sending in troops.

Despite criticism from Russia and Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the East, the protest movement that led to the downfall of Yanukovych was a broadly-based movement that extended across Ukrainian society, and the current interim government, in an attempt to allay concerns about its relations with its pro-Russian constituencies, has said it wants to grant more autonomy to Ukrainian provinces. But Russia has proposed a more centrally devolved federal system for Ukraine, while Ukraine's government sees it as undue external interference in a sovereign country.

In response to the unrest in the country's east, Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov called an emergency meeting of Kyiv's national security council.

Ukraine's acting Foreign Minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, said he had spoken by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and demanded Moscow stop what he called "provocative actions" by its agents in eastern Ukraine.

Lavrov, in a statement issued by his ministry, said there were no Russian agents in the region and that it would be "unacceptable" if Ukrainian authorities were to order the storming of the buildings.

On Saturday the U.S. said it is "very concerned" by violence in eastern Ukraine, which the White House said was happening "apparently with support from Russia." It urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

The White House also said Vice President Biden would travel to Kyiv on April 22 to meet with government officials and other groups, and to highlight U.S. support for "a united, democratic Ukraine that makes its own choices about its future path."

Lavrov on Friday warned the Ukrainian government against using force against protesters, saying that such action would derail the talks on settling the crisis between the United States, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine set for next week, as well as any other diplomatic efforts.

It lashed out at the U.S. warning to slap more sanctions on Russia in case of an escalation of the conflict, saying that "an escalation is only and exclusively possible if Kyev dares to do so, relying on massive support of the U.S. and the EU."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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