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May 27, 2017

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Hooliganism and politics collide in Odessa

ODESSA, Ukraine -- The deaths of 42 people in Odessa that greatly added to the toll of Ukraine's crisis had its roots not only in the worsening political confrontation but also rampant football hooliganism.

The clashes that culminated in a horrific inferno of a trade union building that killed 38 people — most of them pro-Russian activists — began Friday with what was meant to be a peaceful march to a football stadium for a 5:00pm match.

Supporters of Odessa's home team, the Chornomorets, joined up with those of the visiting Metalist side, from Ukraine's northeast city of Kharkiv, to head to the game together.

Originally there were no plans to have the 1,500-strong march turn into what it became: a rally calling for Ukrainian unity. But that's what happened.

"It was some of the young supporters — and in this country it's the young who are naturally more in favour of a united Ukraine than backing Russia," said Natalia Petropavlovska, a leader of the local pro-Maidan movement behind the protests that drove out Ukraine's previous Kremlin-friendly government.

The march, draped in the yellow and blue of both Ukraine's national flag and the club colors of Metalist, was set upon by several hundred pro-Russian thugs obviously prepared for violence, some armed and wearing ski masks and helmets, witnesses said.

In the melee that ensued, at least four people died from gunshots and a dozen people were wounded.

Pro-Russian Attack a 'big mistake'

Oleg Konstantinov was among the injured taken to the city's Jewish Hospital, where he was treated to bullet wounds to his arm and leg.

"When the shooting started, I said that maybe there were guns because the police had arrived," he said. "I was wounded in the arm, and when my friends were getting me out I was again wounded in the arm and in the leg."

An eyewitness, a 40-year-old man who gave only his first name, Bogdan, said: "The two groups of fans were marching in the city when there was shooting and also some homemade grenades thrown.

"The police did nothing. But the fans fought back. There were more of them than the attackers, and they are no strangers to brawls."

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