SLAVYANSK, Ukraine — An Easter truce was shattered early Sunday after a shootout at a militia checkpoint in eastern Ukraine left at least three people dead.
The checkpoint, near the town of Slavyansk, had been manned by separatists in and around the Donetsk region, where armed separatists have occupied administrative buildings for the past week.
A holiday truce had been declared by Kiev's interim government, which pledged not to use force to dislodge the separatists who have called for secession of this predominately Russian-speaking region.
Yuri Zhadobin, who coordinates the pro-Russia unit manning the checkpoint, told The Associated Press he was with about 20 men celebrating Easter when unknown men drove up in four vehicles and opened fire about 3 a.m.
"We began to shoot back from behind the barricades and we threw Molotov cocktails at them," Zhadobin said. Two of the vehicles caught fire and the attackers fled in the other two, he said. Some of his men were wounded and one later died in the hospital, he said.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry released a statement saying three people were killed and three wounded in the shootout, adding that an unknown number of attackers were killed or wounded. Russian state media reported five people dead, including three pro-Russia activists.
Russia echoed separatist claims that the attack was the work of right-wing extremists allied with Ukraine's interim government. However, the right wing Svoboda (freedom) Party, in Donetsk, which supports the interim government in Kiev and has ties to the fringe element at odds with the pro-Russian separatists who were holding the checkpoint, denied responsibility.
"Our guys in Donetsk did not go to Slavyansk," Arthur Shevtsov, a spokesman for party told USA TODAY.
This latest violence raises tensions and fears of open conflict between Ukrainian citizens supporting the interim government and secessionists who openly brandish weapons in towns and cities around Donetsk.
Earlier this week, a U.S. and European Union-brokered agreement between Russia and Ukraine had called on the separatists to withdraw from administration buildings. But the rebels — who intend to hold a referendum on secession on May 11 — say they are not beholden to the agreement.
Some civilians agree and want to see a vote followed by the chance to join Russia.
"I didn't like the previous government, but this new one is even worse," said Iryna Korolenko, who lives in the eastern city of Mariupol. "The Russians are our brothers and I hope we will have a referendum and vote for joining Russia. But even if we don't, this movement will still mean a lot and it will make Kiev respect us and listen to us."
Meanwhile, others don't want the region to join with Russia, but would still like to see the area become more autonomous and independent from Kiev.
"I don't think Russia really wants to help the people here," said Dmytro Oleinik from Mariupol. "I would better live in Ukraine, but in a federalized Donetsk Republic. In this way we will get to keep more of our tax money in the region rather than give it all to Kiev."
Contributing: Olga Rudenko from Mariupol; The Associated Press