Pro-Russia president says four helicopters carrying gunmen leave with 500 ‘knives, slings and Molotov cocktails’ towards airport in Odessa
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said a group of Russians and Ukrainians plans to stage a coup against him, after rockets were fired at a police station in Odessa.
People were still held in the building, according to the interior ministry, which had blamed a “terrorist group” in a statement for a storming that left dozens dead in the Black Sea port city late on Wednesday and which has prompted concerns about wider unrest in the southern region.
Zelensky, whose country is embroiled in a conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east, said in a televised speech from the presidential headquarters that “without any provocation, the entrance of a gang of bandits … to the city centre occurred, taking with them two helicopters and around 300 special operators and contractors”.
Video from inside the state news agency RIA Novosti, which is close to the government, showed the building with flaming smouldering debris and the floors covered in blood and victims in wheelchairs and walkers. Pictures showed several bodies sprawled on the floor of the main entrance.
Zelensky had previously urged the crowd of some 5,000 protesters who gathered in the central square to remain calm.
“Some specialised groups coming from outside of Odessa are causing terror among our citizens,” he said.
State television and the state press agency, that is closer to the president’s base, reported earlier that Zelensky had declared a state of emergency in Odessa and ordered the military to take action.
Interior minister Arsen Avakov said the government had acted in response to explosions, as well as clashes between armed groups.
“Today about 50 criminals began shooting from 11am at the police station near the trade union building … The attackers sent the wounded to the (local) hospital on free military transport,” Avakov wrote on Facebook.
“Due to … a violent clash between special units and terrorists in the city center we will need to institute a state of emergency,” he said.
Avakov blamed “bandits with Russian military training” for what he called “a gruesome tragedy”, and also said 200 hostages had been freed.
The interior ministry said it suspected local pro-Russian “terrorists” were responsible for a bomb that went off at a police clinic, killing three people and seriously wounding six. It said a “terrorist group” also committed four more murders in the area.
Odessa is popular with the Azov battalion, a volunteer militia that is battling the rebels in the east, and has made frequent public showings of its commitment to the separatists.
The standoff in Odessa took place after people began forming a human chain to protect the trade union building, the regional headquarters of the Communist party and Ukraine’s ruling political party, the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland).
Military action in Odessa was opposed by the Communist party.
“We strongly protest against the army taking sides in the fight to occupy the local centre,” the party’s leader, Sergei Udaltsov, wrote on his Facebook page.
Asked about the events in Odessa, a spokesman for Vladimir Putin told state television: “It is completely opposed to our interests.”