DONETSK, Ukraine (CNN) — Tensions are ratcheting up in eastern Ukraine, as new flashpoints develop in the ongoing crisis over the region’s future.
Several cities saw coordinated moves by protesters to take over buildings, as acting President Oleksandr Turchinov held an emergency National Defense and Security Council meeting Saturday evening in the capital Kiev, according to the President’s press office.
In the eastern city of Kramatorsk, police and pro-Russia activists exchanged gunfire, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov’s spokeswoman, Natalia Stativko, told CNN on Saturday.
Slightly north, in the Ukrainian town of Slaviansk, gunmen in camouflage stormed and seized a police building early Saturday, authorities said.
The gunmen arrived in two mini-buses, came to the police station and opened fire at the building before getting inside the facility through windows, the Donetsk regional police press office said. Three police officers were slightly injured.
The gunmen introduced themselves as part of the Donetsk republic initiative group, police said.
Their goal was to seize hundreds of weapons inside the police building; they allowed the police officers inside to leave the facility, the press office said.
A CNN team in Slaviansk saw dozens of armed men in camouflage in control of the Ukraine Security Services (SBU) building, as well as the police building. The men did not want to be filmed. Makeshift barricades have been erected around both buildings and locals were bringing food to the armed men at the SBU site.
A police building in the town of Krasni Liman had also been taken by protesters, according to Stativko, the spokeswoman for Ukraine’s acting Interior Minister, although the CNN team saw no evidence to that effect. Special units are being sent to both Slaviansk and Krasni Liman to assess the situation, she said.
Donetsk chief of regional police resigns
The latest reports come amid heightened tensions in the country’s largely Russian-speaking eastern region, centered on the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv. Pro-Russian protesters in those cities seized government buildings several days ago and remain barricaded in some of them.
In Donetsk, the chief of regional police has resigned.
Kostyantyn Pozhydaev announced his resignation during a pro-Russia activist rally outside the police office, the Donetsk regional police press office said in a statement Saturday.
Earlier in the day, the acting Ukrainian President’s website stated that the Head of the Security Service for the Donetsk region, Valery Ivanov, was sacked.
A demonstration was held in front of the Donetsk police headquarters Saturday, according to the Interior ministry. Although life in most of the city continues as normal, protesters still hold government buildings. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk paid a visit to Donetsk on Friday as he seeks to rally those in the region — which has strong ties to Russia — behind the interim government in Kiev ahead of elections due on May 25.
He suggested that constitutional reform could give more power to the regions, though the time frame is short.
“We almost don’t have time to amend the constitution before the presidential election,” he said, adding that they need to move fast so that any new president doesn’t dictate terms.
The United States has accused Russia of fomenting the separatist unrest in its neighbor as a pretext for military intervention.
Next Thursday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will meet in Switzerland with foreign ministers from the United States, Russia and Ukraine to discuss efforts to de-escalate the situation.
That meeting will follow talks between EU foreign ministers on Monday in Luxembourg. EU defense ministers are also due to meet Tuesday, with the situation in Ukraine high on the agenda.
Western powers say they want to resolve the crisis through diplomatic and political means, and have warned of tougher sanctions against Russia if it intervenes further in Ukraine.
Ukraine acting Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, spoke Saturday by phone to discuss preparations for Thursday’s meeting, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said.
In the call, Deshchytsia demanded that Russian special services agents end their “provocative actions” in eastern Ukraine, which are intended to derail the Geneva meeting and impede efforts to resolve the crisis, the ministry said.
Lavrov said Friday in a televised interview on Russian state television that there are no Russian troops or Russian secret services agents in southeastern Ukraine, the official ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
He also said Russia has no intention of absorbing the southeastern regions of Ukraine, contrary to the fears of the West.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s southeastern Crimea region last month, following a referendum condemned as illegal by Kiev and the international community, and the West fears it may next seek to enter eastern Ukraine.
White House expresses concern, amid new U.S. sanctions
The White House called on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government to “cease all efforts to destabilize Ukraine.”
“We are very concerned by the concerted campaign we see underway in eastern Ukraine today by pro-Russian separatists, apparently with support from Russia, who are inciting violence and sabotage and seeking to undermine and destabilize the Ukrainian state,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson, in a statement Saturday.
“We saw similar so-called protest activities in Crimea before Russia’s purported annexation.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, in a tweet, described the situation as “worrisome. “Russia again seems to be behind” the unrest, Psaki said Saturday.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury on Friday imposed a third round of sanctions on individuals considered to be involved in Crimea’s annexation.
They include six individuals classed by the Treasury as Crimean separatists, former Ukrainian official Sergey Tsekov, and the Crimea-based natural gas company Chernomorneftegaz, which the Treasury says has appropriated assets belonging to Crimea’s state-run gas company.
“Crimea is occupied territory. We will continue to impose costs on those involved in ongoing violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Treasury official David S. Cohen.
NATO: ‘All steps necessary’
The United States and NATO estimate there are up to 40,000 Russian troops near the border. Russia insists they are there on military exercises and that it has no plans to invade.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged Russia on Friday to pull back its troops from the border area.
Russia should contribute “to a de-escalation of the situation” and engage in a direct dialogue with the Ukrainian government, he said during a visit to Sofia, Bulgaria.
NATO is “not discussing military actions” but is focused on protecting its allies, and it “will take all steps necessary to make sure that this collective defense is effective,” Rasmussen said.
Meanwhile, the organization is reinforcing support to its allies, “from the Baltic to the Black Sea,” to deal with the instability created by Russia, Rasmussen said via Twitter.
NATO released additional satellite images Friday purportedly showing the Russian military buildup and rebutted Russian claims that other satellite photos released a day earlier were outdated. NATO said the photos were recent, gathered between late March and earlier this month.
By Victoria Butenko, Tim Lister and Chandrika Narayan
CNN’s Tim Lister reported from Donetsk and Victoria Butenko from Kiev, while Chandrika Narayan wrote in Atlanta. CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh and Radina Gigova contributed to this report.