Local patrols by steelworkers in the eastern city of Mariupol late on Thursday forced pro-Russian insurgents to retreat from the government buildings they had seized, giving residents hope that a wave of anarchy was over.
Mariupol is the second-largest city in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region — one of two regions that on Monday declared independence from the central government in Kiev. Citizen patrols began there earlier this week as Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, urged steelworkers at his factories to help police restore order.
On Thursday, Akhmetov's company, Metinvest, agreed with steel plant directors, police and community leaders to help improve security in the city and get insurgents to vacate the buildings they had seized. A representative of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, which had declared independence, was also a party to the deal.
The port and industrial center lies on the main road between Russia and Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Moscow in March after a public referendum in favor of seceding from Ukraine. Mariupol saw heavy fighting in the past weeks, including a shoot-out outside a police station that left one policeman and several insurgents dead.
Burglaries and carjackings became the norm after the pro-Russian insurgents asserted themselves earlier this month, bringing in a wave of marauding, said police spokeswoman Yulia Lafazan, adding that carjackings have ceased since the patrols began.
German Mandrakov, once the commander of Mariupol's occupied government building, told The Associated Press on Friday that his associates fled, while he was "forced" to leave the building they had controlled for weeks.
"Everyone ran away," he said, using a vulgar Russian word for cowards. "Someone is trying to sow discord among us, someone has signed something, but we will continue our fight."
"We were duped," added Serhiy Atroshchenko, who, along with two companions, identified himself as all that was left of Mariupol's pro-Russian separatist force. "Akhmetov used to keep his eyes closed [to what was happening], but now he decided to make a deal with Kiev authorities."
Several dozen Metinvest workers in overalls and helmets cleared out barricades of rubbish outside the Mariupol government building Friday. Trucks carried it away, and by midday the barricades were nearly gone.
"[Locals are] tired of war and chaos. Burglaries and marauding have to stop," said Viktor Gusak, one of the Metinvest employees cleaning the street.
On Wednesday, Akhmetov broke his silence to call for Donetsk to remain part of Ukraine, arguing that independence or absorption into Russia would be an economic catastrophe.
In other areas in eastern Ukraine, however, the pro-Russian rebels were fortifying their territories.
Outside the strategic city of Slovyansk, an insurgent stronghold for more than a month now, armed men installed a new checkpoint on the eastern approaches to the city. That checkpoint blocks a major highway that links Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, with the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don across the border.
In Kiev, Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov on Friday urged residents of the eastern regions to stop helping the rebels and support the central government.
"You've got to support the antiterrorist operation so that we could defeat terrorists and separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk regions together," he told the parliament. "The actions of the terrorists are threatening the lives and welfare of the people."
At the same time, the United Nations has raised concern about the increasing human rights abuses in eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian armed groups take advantage of the breakdown in law and order outside of Mariupol.
The U.N. findings, released in a report Friday, echoed a statement published on Monday by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose experts had identified "a significant number of serious human rights violations" during a visit to Ukraine in March. As with the OSCE report, the U.N. findings (PDF) rejected Moscow’s contention that Russian speakers were ever under threat in Ukraine, which in February toppled its pro-Russian president and replaced him with a West-facing interim government.
"Those with influence on the armed groups responsible for much of the violence in eastern Ukraine [must] do their utmost to rein in these men who seem bent on tearing the country apart," according to a statement by U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay that accompanied the report. The call seemed to be directed chiefly at Russia, which the West accuses of engineering the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.