Pro-Russian Insurgents Retreat in Ukraine's East

Citizen patrols organized by steelworkers drive separatists out of occupied government buildings.

Removing barricades in Mariupol, May 14, 2014.
Workers of Metinvest, majority-owned by Rinat Akhmetov's System Capital Management, remove barricades and debris in front of the City Hall in Mariupol, May 14, 2014. Reuters

Pro-Russian insurgents have retreated from government buildings in a major eastern Ukrainian city since steelworkers began citizen patrols, giving residents hope that a wave of anarchy was over.

Mariupol, the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, was one of the cities in the east where pro-Russian protesters seized control of government buildings.

Citizen patrols began earlier this week as Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, urged the steelworkers at his factories to help the police restore order.

Akhmetov's company, Metinvest, initiated Thursday's agreement with steel plant directors, local police and community leaders on improving security in the city and vacating separatist-occupied buildings. A representative of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, which declared independence on Monday, was also a party to the deal.

Associated Press journalists did not see any insurgent presence in Mariupol Friday morning.

German Mandrakov, who was once the commander of Mariupol's occupied government building, told The AP on Friday that his associates fled, while he was "forced" to leave the building they had controlled for weeks.

"Everyone ran away," he said, using a vulgar Russian word to refer to them as cowards. "Someone is trying to sow discord among us, someone has signed something, but we will continue our fight."

Metinvest has two steel plants Mariupol, a city of half a million people and an important port and industrial center on the main road between Russia and Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Moscow last month.

The city saw heavy fighting in the past weeks, including a shoot-out outside a police station that left one policeman and several insurgents dead.

On Friday morning, several dozen Metinvest workers in overalls and helmets were clearing out the barricades outside the government building.

Viktor Gusak, a Metinvest employee who was cleaning the street, said locals are "tired of war and chaos. Burglaries and marauding have to stop."

Trucks were carrying away the rubbish and tires that formed the barricades. By midday, the Mariupol government building was nearly free of barricades.

Several hundred meters away three men were sitting in the park, cooking soup. One of them, unemployed Serhiy Atroshchenko, told the AP this was all that was left of Mariupol's separatist force.

"We were duped," Atroshchenko said. "Akhmetov used to keep his eyes closed (to what was happening), but now he decided to make a deal with Kiev authorites."

Atroshchenko said his associates have fled and only he and his two friends , the "men of ideas," are left "to fight till the end." None of the three was armed.

While groups of armed men were seizing one town hall after another in the region widely believed to be Akhmetov's turf, the billionaire industrialist kept mum, attracting angry comments across the country. Among the graffiti aimed at Akhmetov in Kiev was this: "Want to make money? First, make some peace!"

On Wednesday, Akhmetov broke his silence to call for Donetsk to remain part of Ukraine, arguing that independence or absorption into Russia would be an economic catastrophe.

Since President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster in February, Ukraine's new leadership has reached out to oligarchs for help — appointing them as governors in eastern regions where loyalties to Moscow were strong.

Ihor Kolomoisky, a metals, banking and media tycoon who was appointed governor of his native region of Dnipropetrovsk, was among those praised for preserving order. Others like industrialist Serhiy Taruta, governor of the Donetsk region, seemed helpless as district after district fell into the insurgents' hands.

In Mariupol, the first major citizen patrol sponsored by Akhmetov's Metinvest was held on Thursday, local police spokeswoman Yulia Lafazan said. There are now about 100 groups of men consisting of two policemen and six to eight steelworkers patrolling Mariupol streets, she said.

Lafazan credited the patrols for a "drastic improvement" in the crime situation in the city.

Burglaries and car-jackings became a norm after the pro-Russian insurgents asserted themselves in the city earlier this month, bringing in a wave of marauding. Car-jackings have ceased since the patrols began, Lafazan said.

"For the first time (in weeks), I can go out shopping without fear," said local resident 47-year-old Valentyna Tochilina.

In a report published on Friday the United Nations raised concern about human rights abuses increasing in eastern Ukraine as armed groups took advantage of the breakdown in law and order.