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Pro-Russian forces pounce on more property in east Ukraine

WASHINGTON/SLAVYANSK, Ukraine -- Kalashnikov-wielding gunmen on Saturday seized a police station and a security building in Ukraine's restive eastern industrial heartland amid spreading protests to press for the heavily Russified region to join Kremlin rule.

The coordinated attacks and a failed assault on the prosecutor's office in the local capital Donetsk underscored the volatility of the crisis ahead of peace talks between EU and U.S. diplomats and their Moscow and Kiev counterparts in Geneva on Thursday.

Ukraine's interim leaders have been facing unceasing pressure from Russia since their February ouster of an unpopular Kremlin-backed president and decision to seek closer ties with the West.

Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine's eastern border after annexing its Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and nearly doubled the rates it charges Kiev for gas.

But the raids more immediately highlight how little sway Kiev's untested leaders have over pro-Russians who have since April 6 controlled the Donetsk government seat and a state security building in the nearby eastern city of Lugansk.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk visited the region on Friday in a failed bid to pacify protesters with a vague promise of more sweeping regional rights.

The morning raid on the police station and a subsequent attack of the regional security service centre happened in Slavyansk — a riverside town of 100,000 about 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of the regional capital Donetsk.

Ukraine's interior ministry said the first assault was led by 20 “armed men in camouflage fatigues” whose main purpose was to get a hold of 20 machineguns and 400 Makarov guns stored in the police headquarters “and to distribute them to protesters”.

“Our response will be very severe,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.

It was not immediately clear how the local police responded or whether the gunmen had taken any hostages.

But Avakov said that Ukrainian special forces had been dispatched to the scene.

“There is zero tolerance for armed terrorists,” he said.

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Armed pro-Russian activists guard a police station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk after it was seized by a few dozen gunmen on Saturday, April 12. (AFP)

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