Another government building in east Ukraine fell to Kremlin-backed separatists on April 30, as the city hall in Horlivka, with more than 250,000 residents, was occupied by masked armed men in the early hours.
They met with no resistance – unsurprisingly, since they have been control of the city's police deparments, with its store of weapons, since April 14.
Nevertheless, this was a clear escalation in the siege under way.
The checkpoint on the road from Donetsk had been reinforced with sandbags and barbed wire a few days ago, and by afternoon heavily armed men, some with grenade launchers, had similarly reinforced the occupied town hall’s main entrance.
This did not stop the bulding from being open for normal business, as locals came to sort out administrative and social problems with staff. The line, however, was a good deal smaller than usual, and no one was keen to linger and talk.
A group of militants said they were from Sloviansk, the nearby city which is at the centre of the armed uprising engulfing eastern Ukraine.
Decorator and former soldier Oleg "Psych" (his military nickname) said he was with a "rapid response unit" that had been ordered to take the city hall today, and that it was part of a larger strategy decided by “people who are clever and wiser, and who were chosen to direct us.” He and the others refused to elaborate, but denied Russian involvement.
“We’re the ‘little green men’ here,” said "Psych," indicating his camouflage uniform and using the common Ukrainian nickname for the Russian soldiers who occupied Crimea in March. “We bought the cheapest camouflage, because it’s all we can afford. But it’s green, so we must be little green men.”
"Psych" and his unit commander Alexander Filipov, carrying militia-issue pistols, were driving around Gorlivka in a commandeered militia car with broken windows which they say were shot out by unknown assailants in a black BMW some days ago. Such incidents, they said as they showed the bullet holes in another vehicle parked outside the town hall, were proof of attacks from "fascists," which along with Ukrainian soldiers sent to the region as part of the government’s anti-terrorism operation, justified local people taking up arms in self-defense.
There are no Ukrainian soldiers in Horlivka, and no sign of the Horlivka police on the streets. In their absence, militants say they have the right to appropriate the militia’s equipment and take on their function of protecting the town.
“The militia belong to the people, and so everything they have – weapons, cars - belongs to the people too,” Filipov said. He said that the violent storming of the police headquarters two weeks ago, like the seizure of the city hall today, “wasn’t an occupation, it was just taking it under the control of the people. The people are the only legitimate authority.”
Not all the people of Horlivka are happy with the authority Filipov and "Psych" have taken upon themselves in their name. Two teenage girls skating on rollerblades outside the city registry office called it “nonsense” and “a provocation, to set people against Ukraine.”
“I support a united Ukraine. This is my personal opinion and everyone has a right to a personal opinion,” said one of the girls, who said few in the town shared her views. “The situation scares me,” she admitted, refusing to give her name as she skated off.
Portrait artist Nikolai Kholodok, sitting nearby, had another explanation for what was happening in Horlivka.
“It’s nothing terrible, it’s just the local mafia,” he said. “Donbas has always had its own mafia; in Soviet times Horlivka held the first place in the Soviet Union for the mafia. The level of culture is really low here, so what can you expect?
Kremlin-backed separasts have increased their control over many cities in eastern Ukraine in recent days.
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.