Ukraine claims city hall in Mariupol cleared of pro-Russia militants, but reality on ground less clear

Last Updated Apr 24, 2014 10:16 AM EDT

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Police have cleared the city hall in a southeastern Ukrainian city of the pro-Russia protesters who had been occupying it for over a week, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Thursday as government forces appeared to resume operations in the east. Local police officials and protesters, however, presented quite another picture of what happened in the city of Mariupol.

Pro-Russia protesters and masked gunmen have been occupying government buildings across eastern Ukraine for nearly two weeks and refusing to recognize Ukraine's fledging government.

Avakov wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday that the Mariupol city hall "has been freed to resume work," but did not describe the action.

However, Yulia Lasazan, a spokeswoman for Mariupol's police department, told The Associated Press that about 30 masked men armed with baseball bats stormed the building in the early hours on Thursday and started beating the protesters. It was not clear why the protesters, some of whom were believed to be armed, did not offer resistance but called the police instead.

Lasazan said the police were controlling the perimeter and were negotiating with the remaining protesters to leave the building.

Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for insurgents in Slavyansk, said two pro-Russia fighters were killed at a checkpoint in the village of Khrestyshche, six miles north of the city. She said checks were being made at hospitals to see if there were other casualties.

The situation was quiet in Slavyansk itself, but checkpoints inside the city were abandoned and it was unclear where the pro-Russia insurgents manning them had gone.

Khorosheva later said the pro-Russian militia had regained control over the disputed checkpoints and the fighters were ready to repel any attack by government troops.

"We will defend ourselves to our last drop of blood. We are ready to repeat Stalingrad," she told The Associated Press, invoking the memory of the Soviet army's victory over German forces in 1942-43.

Elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, signs could be seen Thursday morning that government orders to resume military operations were taking effect, two days after Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, gave the order.

At least 10 military and special police armored vehicles were parked on the road just to the north of Slovyansk, a city 100 miles west of the Russian border that has emerged as the focus of the armed insurgency. Two helicopters were also spotted circling over the area. Troops ordered residents in the surrounding area to keep away.

Near the town of Makatikha, about 20 kilometers north of Slavyansk, pro-Russian militia at checkpoints set fire to barricades of car tires in an apparent attempt to reduce visibility from the air. An Associated Press reporter observed about two dozen militiamen manning checkpoints along the road earlier in the day.

No gunfire had been heard by late morning.

CBS News correspondent Holly Williams reports the apparent Ukrainian offensive came as Russia issued its sternest warning yet that any military action against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine would carry "consequences," and announced new military exercises near the two nations' shared border.

"If these people have advanced to the so called 'acute phase' (of confrontation with protesters), this is not an acute phase, it is just a punitive operation and it will of course incur consequences for the people making these decisions, including (an effect) on our interstate relations," Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday, according to Reuters news agency.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated the threat, warning that if Russian "interests, legitimate interests, the interests of Russians, have been attacked directly, like in South Ossetia for example, I don't see any other way but to respond in full accordance with international law."

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced new military exercises in Russia's south and west in reaction to the mounting unrest in eastern Ukraine and NATO exercises in Poland.

"We have to react to these developments somehow," he said in televised comments. Russia already has tens of thousands of troops stationed in regions along its border with Ukraine. The latest Russian military exercises will involve ground troops in the south and the west and the air forces patrolling the border, Shoigu said.

He also quoted unspecified sources saying that Kiev has deployed more than 11,000 troops and 160 tanks against the pro-Russia insurgents which he put at less than 2,000 troops. There was no way to immediately verify those figures.

Ukraine is going through its biggest political crisis since the fall of Soviet Union, set off by months-long anti-government protests and President Viktor Yanukovych's flight to Russia.

Yanukovych's ouster sparked wide anger in his support base in Ukraine's east. The insurgents, who claim Ukraine's post-Yanukovych government consists of nationalists who will suppress the east's large Russian-speaking population, are demanding regional autonomy or even annexation by Russia.

Ukraine and Russia reached a deal in Geneva last week to defuse the crisis, but pro-Russian insurgents in the east - and right-wing militants in Kiev - have defied calls for all sides to disarm and to vacate the buildings they are occupying.