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Russia's warnings of inter-ethnic violence in Ukraine come to fruition

Published time: May 03, 2014 01:37

People wait to be rescued on upper storeys at the trade union building in Odessa May 2, 2014. (Reuters / Yevgeny Volokin)

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The Friday deaths of at least 31 anti-government activists in a fire started by ultra-nationalists in Odessa is the kind of inter-ethnic violence that Russia has warned about for months, Mark Sleboda, a senior lecturer of international affairs, told RT.

The Moscow State University instructor spoke to RT about the violent scene in Odessa, where anti-government protesters were forced into the Trade Unions House by Right Sector militias who were bussed in from western Ukraine. The ultra-nationalists then set fire to the building, leading to a horrific death for dozens.

"Of those that survived – either by escaping the building or jumping out of the windows – some of them were then made to crawl on their hands and knees, despite suffering from burns, through a gauntlet, a corridor of shame by these ultra-nationalists, who were then beating them," Sleboda said, adding that there is video footage of the beatings.

Sleboda also said the violence was foreseeable, most of all by Russia, as soon as the conflict began in February.

RT: The events we're seeing here are a serious escalation, aren't they?

Mark Sleboda: Yes, this is the greatest number of fatalities that we have seen in this crisis since the riots on February 20-21.

RT: Briefly take us through what happened today and the offense that led up to all these deaths.

MS: There has been a condition of dueling political militias in Odessa for several months now but there hadn't been any fatalities as of yet. We know that several hundred ultra-nationalists were bussed into Odessa. We have this from the local police chief and from the Right Sector themselves. They attacked an anti-putsch protest camp in the center of the city.

The self-defense forces of the protest camps certainly fought back. They were using makeshift weapons, chains, bats, reportedly some small-arms fire, Molotov cocktails, and stones. We know that regular people on both sides were participating. We saw pensioners throwing pavement stones and hitting people with clubs, which is an absolute Balkan, former Yugoslavia level of neighbor-on-neighbor violence.

At one point, when a firetruck came on the scene, the pro-putsch mob took control of the fire brigade truck, beat the driver, and then tried to use the truck to ram the self-defense lines of the anti-putsch protesters and crush them. Then the anti-putsch protesters eventually retreated from the onslaught inside the Trade Unions building. The pro-putsch protesters, the ultra-nationalists, they set the building on fire. At least 30-some people died from smoke inhalation or burning. Others jumped out of the windows. Eight people died jumping out of the windows.

Of those that survived – either by escaping the building or jumping out of the windows – some of them were then made to crawl on their hands and knees, despite suffering from burns, through a gauntlet, a corridor of shame by these ultra-nationalists, who were then beating them. We have video of this.

Supporters of the Kiev government take cover during clashes with anti-government activists in the streets of Odessa May 2, 2014. (Reuters / Yevgeny Volokin)

RT: We have an eyewitness account, someone who was at the building when it was attacked. We'll listen to what he says.

Witness Valery Kaurov, self-proclaimed head of the Republic of Odessa: One policeman died after being injured by Right Sector radicals who came today to Odessa. There were over a thousand of them. They wanted to hold a rally here for United Ukraine and march toward our tent camp. We knew beforehand of this provocation, so some of our brigades met them as they were making their way to us. That's when these radicals began throwing Molotov cocktails, rocks, and started to fight with our guys, but our teams were able to fend them off and stop them. Seeing all their attempts were fruitless; they opened gunfire. That's how one of our guys and a policeman were killed. These radicals were trying to get to our Orthodox outpost, where many people come to pray for the Berkut soldiers who lost their lives on Maidan. We're ready to fight to the end.

RT: Russian officials have warned that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war. Is this what you see?

MS: Yes, Russia has been warning about this, not just for the last few weeks, but for months now, when there was an attempt to try to force Ukraine to make a political decision on east-west with, first, the association agreement. Then when the regime took power through the mob protests on February 21-22. Russia has been warning that level of inter-ethnic violence was inevitable, and this is the result we've seen.

RT: How much control does the Kiev government have over the Right Sector, if any at all?

MS: Various times in the crisis, they have shown that they have no control over the Right Sector. There was a truce that was broken around February 19 or 20 by the Right Sector. The February 21 agreement was broken by February 22 by the Right Sector. And we have seen repeated riots in Kiev as other Right Sector and ultra-nationalists marched on the Rada, trying to force further and further right policies on this regime.

RT: Do you expect to see further violence in eastern and southern Ukraine?

MS: We've already gotten reports of further encroachments in Kramatorsk and Slavyansk, and Dmitry Yarosh, the leader of the Right Sector, has just announced that he will personally go to Slavyansk to oversee the final stages of the operation, as he put it.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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