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Anatolii Stepanova/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainians mourn in Odessa as clashes continue in east

Pro- and anti-Russian groups continue to battle, edging Ukraine closer to the brink of war

A day after dozens of people were killed in the worst violence since the beginning of the Ukraine uprising, the tit-for-tat machinations of pro- and anti-Russian groups continued across the country on Saturday.

The ongoing clashes came as Ukrainians mourned the deaths of at least 42 people killed in street battles between supporters and opponents of Russia in the Ukrainian city of Odessa — which is in the country’s south, far from the eastern area where previous violence has been concentrated. The fighting heightened fears that the country is edging closer to full-blown war.

In Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking eastern region, pro-Russian rebels freed seven European military observers after holding them hostage for eight days, while Kyiv pressed on with a military campaign to reclaim territory held by pro-Russians in the area.

Meanwhile, in Odessa on Saturday morning, people placed flowers near the doors of the trade union building where pro-Russian protesters had hold up on Friday and dozens were burned alive after clashes erupted on the streets. Mourners lit candles and raised the yellow, white and red flag of the city. The burned remains of a tented camp of pro-Russian demonstrators in the area had been swept away overnight.

At the nearby hospital, residents lined up to donate blood and medical supplies.

The Kremlin, which has massed tens of thousands of soldiers on the eastern Ukrainian border and proclaims the right to invade to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians, said the provisional government in Kyiv and its Western backers were responsible for the violence.

"Kyiv and its Western sponsors are practically provoking the bloodshed and bear direct responsibility for it," Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as telling reporters.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday asked Secretary of State John Kerry to press Ukraine to halt its military operations across the country.

"The minister called on the United States to use all of its influence to force the Kyiv regime, which (Washington) looks out after and which has declared a war against its own people, to immediately halt military operations in the southeast, pull back its troops and free protesters," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The Odessa bloodshed came on the same day as the biggest push yet by the government in Kyiv to reassert its control over rebel areas in the east, hundreds of miles away, where heavily armed pro-Russian militia have proclaimed a "People's Republic of Donetsk."

There on Saturday hundreds of pro-Russian protesters stormed a government building, ransacking files and smashing windows, in apparent reaction to the anti-Russian violence and subsequent fire in Odessa the day before.

"This is for yesterday!" said protester Tatiana Kamniva outside the governor's office. "They're monsters, worse than monsters."

The pro-Russians are hoping to hold a referendum on May 11 on secession from Ukraine, similar to the vote held in March in Ukraine’s Crimea region, which was seized and annexed by Russia in a move that overturned the post-Cold War diplomatic order.

Militia in the eastern town of Sloviansk, their most heavily fortified redoubt, shot down two Ukrainian helicopters on Friday, killing two crew members and stalling an advance by Ukrainian troops in armored vehicles. But on Saturday the government said Ukrainian forces were making progress in wresting control from pro-Russians, and had retaken the security service headquarters in the eastern town of Kramatorsk, south of Sloviansk.

"Now it is under the control of the National Guard," Ukraine’s defense ministry said in a statement. Local television showed pictures of armored personnel carriers moving through the town.

At the same time, a group of military observers who were seized last week by pro-Russian militia in Sloviansk were released, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed on Saturday.

The pro-Russians had initially described the monitors, led by a German colonel, as prisoners of war. One Swede was freed earlier on health grounds while four Germans, a Czech, a Dane and a Pole were held until Saturday. A Russian envoy helped negotiate their release.

The pro-Russian leader in Sloviansk, self-proclaimed "People's Mayor" Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, said they were freed along with five Ukrainian captives, with no conditions.

"As I promised them, we celebrated my birthday yesterday and they left. As I said, they were my guests."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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