Pro-Russia activists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk have proclaimed independence from Ukraine and asked Russia to send in troops to protect them from the government in Kiev.
Protesters who had occupied the regional government headquarters in Donetsk on Sunday set up a People’s Council of Donetsk and voted unanimously on Monday to break away from Ukraine and form "the sovereign state of the People’s Republic of Donetsk."
The self-proclaimed Council decided to call a referendum on splitting from Ukraine and joining Russia before May 11, that is ahead of Ukrainian presidential elections set for May 25.
"The Donetsk Republic is to be created within the administrative borders of the Donetsk region. This decision will come into effect after the referendum," the activists said in a statement.
In a separate address to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Donetsk Council asked him to deploy a temporary peacekeeping force to the region.
"Without your support and the support of Russia, it will be hard for us to stand against the junta in Kiev," said the address.
Pro-Russia demonstrators have set up barricades of car tires and razor wire in front of the government headquarters in Donetsk to guard it against a possible assault by security forces.
Donetsk activists said they were coordinating their referendum plans with pro-Russia forces in Kharkiv and Lugansk, were government buildings had been also seized on Sunday. The three most developed industrial regions border Russia and have much more in common with neighbouring Russian provinces than with western Ukraine.
Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk have become focal points of anti-government protests following the power takeover in Kiev by pro-Western forces and Crimea’s absorption by Russia.
Ukraine’s Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov denounced the Donetsk unrest as a "second stage" of Russia’s Crimea-like "special operation" to dismember Ukraine.
Mr. Turchynov said local security forces were "passive" in dealing with the protests in the southeast and promised to send police reinforcements to carry out "anti-terrorist operations."
Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a Cabinet meeting on Monday that there was "a plan to destabilise the situation" in Ukraine in order to pave the way "for foreign forces to cross the border and seize territory."
Ukraine’s Russian-speaking south-eastern regions have for weeks demanded greater autonomy from Kiev, but the new Ukrainian authorities have flatly rejected federalisation.
"Any call toward federalisation is an attempt to destroy the Ukrainian state," Mr. Yatsenyuk said on Monday.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Monday condemned Kiev’s stand as “irresponsible” and warned that without federalisation Ukraine will continue to limp from crisis to crisis.
Apart from the separatist rebellion in the east the Ukrainian authorities face a challenge in Kiev from far right nationalists who helped them come to power in February. On Monday activists of the Right Sector group disrupted a convention of Ukrainian judges in Kiev. They blocked the Supreme Court building and led out the judges one by one shouting “Lustration”. Some of the judges were shoved, punched and spat upon. The nationalists demanded early adoption of lustration legislation that would ban former allies of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych from getting government jobs.