Odessa took a dangerous step away from Ukrainian government control on May 4 as local police gave in to a mob and released 67 people they had been holding since the night of May 2, when a Russian-backed crowd sparked clashes that led to the deaths of more than 40 people -- most of them in a horrific fire.
The rally to release the detainees started with a small group of Christian Orthodox believers who moved away from a larger crowd that had gathered at the burnt-out Trade Union building, where most of the deadly clashes took place on May 2.
Bearing church banners and icons, they called for others to follow them to the city police station to demand the release of more than 100 people taken into detention as part of the investigation into the deadly violence.
More people soon followed. “Why are you here looking at horrors?” shouted one man. “Come and do something positive for your city!”
About 100 riot police blocked one end of the street outside the police station, but did not hinder anyone from walking along the pavement, or approaching from the other direction. They stood by and watched as the surging crowd of a few hundred people threw stones to break the windows, and eventually stormed the gate into the yard.
Soon after, the detainees streamed out, greeted by shouts of “heroes!”
“We’re keeping the peace,” said one police officer, a phrase which has been repeated in towns across southeast Ukraine where local police have stood by and let local mobs storm government buildings. A major standing with his men said he had not been given any orders, and without orders he was unable to act.
Dmitry Futedzhi, the acting Odessa Oblast police chief, harassed by the crowd and out of uniform, put it passively: He said the decision had been taken to release the detainees in order to keep conflict under control. He also said the people detained in the station had been brought there for their own safety, after they asked for help to escape the clashes in the center of Odessa.
While it remains unclear where the order to release the detainees originated, the Ukrainian government reacted furiously to the Odessa police’s actions.
The police in Odessa acted in a totally disorderly, possibly criminal way,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page, adding that all police chiefs would be fired immediately. Earlier, in a speech in Odessa, Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk implied that the police were too busy collecting bribes from local gangsters to do their jobs properly.
Two of the detainees confirmed that they had asked the police to rescue them.
“We were just walking along Derebasovskaya Street and saw the radicals, and took shelter in the nearest place and it was the Athena building,” said 28-year-old Yevgeny Dyatkov. He and another detainee both said the police had promised to bring them to the station to register their details and then let them go, but instead kept them in the temporary detention cell where they had to sleep on the floor, and charged them with mass disorder.
Dyatkov said he had nothing to do with the clashes on either side, but had just been walking in the city at the time with nothing more in his pocket but a mobile phone and some money.
His anger was directed at "radicals" and the militant nationalist group Pravy Sektor, who he said had come to Odessa to stir up trouble. He accused the police of letting them act with impunity on May 2 while arresting their opponents under false charges. “I can’t say I’m very happy that they arrested people who had sticks and said they had not sticks but guns,” he said. “Lots of our people died.”
The jubilant crowd chanted “All for one and one for all!” and “Russia!”
But after the more peaceful members left, a smaller group armed with iron bars and sticks remained in a standoff with the riot police who withdrew to the building, barricading the entrance to the courtyard.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media