Donetsk, Ukraine (CNN) — Ukraine’s interior minister announced Sunday that government forces had launched an operation against pro-Russian activists who seized a police station in the city of Slaviansk.
But a CNN crew in the city saw no signs of Ukrainian security forces nor any confrontation with the occupiers.
Gunmen dressed in camouflage had stormed and seized the police building a day earlier in Slaviansk, a town about 100 miles from the Russian border, and set up barricades around them.
In a post on his Facebook account Sunday morning, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said an “anti-terrorist operation” had started in Slaviansk.
“It is managed by Anti-terrorist Center of the Security Service of Ukraine. All the law enforcement agencies of the country are participating. Godspeed!” Akakov wrote.
“Tell all civilians to leave the center of town — don’t leave your apartment, or go to the window,”he later added.
He later commented on his own Facebook post, saying that a state security officer had been killed.
On an thorough tour of the town, the CNN crew saw no security presence — with the exception of a single police car.
Kiev’s fragile new government and the West accuse Russia of destabilizing the region as a pretext to potentially send in troops to protect the local Russian-speaking population.
NATO says Russian armed forces are massing on Ukraine’s eastern border, while Moscow says they are carrying out military exercises.
The gunmen in Slaviansk had arrived at the police station in two mini-buses. They opened fire at the police station before entering it through windows, Donetsk regional police said.
Three police officers were slightly injured.
The gunmen introduced themselves as part of the Donetsk republic initiative group. Their goal was to seize hundreds of weapons inside the police building; they allowed the police officers inside to leave the facility, the press office said.
A CNN team in Slaviansk saw dozens of armed, well-equipped men in camouflage in control of the Ukraine Security Services (SBU) building, as well as the police building. The men did not want to be filmed.
Makeshift barricades have been erected around both buildings and local residents brought food and tires to the armed men at the SBU site.
Tensions in Ukraine have become protracted. Violent street protests broke out months ago against the previous pro-Russia government and ended in the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Political power in the national government shifted rapidly in a pro-Western direction.
A short time later, pro-Russian elements occupied the region of Crimea, which Russia quickly annexed. Since then, pro-Russian protesters have taken to the streets ineastern Ukrainian regions, where Russian is widely spoken, and in some cases stormed and occupied buildings.
The protesters’ goal is to separate from Ukraine.
“We want to create a people’s republic, a real one, one in Donetsk, one in Luhansk, and in general, let the people of the southeast determine what they want. We want to hold a referendum,” one pro-Russian armed activist in Slaviansk told Reuters.
In Kramatorsk, also in the east, police and pro-Russia activists exchanged gunfire on Saturday, Avakov’s spokeswoman Natalia Stativko said.
Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchinov held an emergency National Defense and Security Council meeting in the capital Kiev.
A police building in the town of Krasni Liman was also taken by protesters, Stativko said. The CNN team saw no evidence to that effect.
In the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, pro-Russian protesters seized government buildings several days ago and remain barricaded in some.
The Donetsk chief of regional police, Kostyantyn Pozhydaev, announced his resignation during a pro-Russia activist rally outside the police office Saturday, according to a police press statement.
The Head of the Security Service for the region, Valery Ivanov, was sacked, authorities said.
The United States has accused Russia of fomenting the separatist unrest in its neighbor as a pretext for military intervention.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Saturday, expressing “strong concern that attacks today by armed militants in eastern Ukraine were orchestrated and synchronized, similar to previous attacks in eastern Ukraine and Crimea,” a senior State Department official said.
The official said that Kerry warned Lavrov there would be “additional consequences” if Russia did not take steps to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine and move its troops back from its border.
The official also noted that militants involved in Saturday’s unrest in eastern Ukraine “were equipped with specialized Russian weapons and the same uniforms as those worn by the Russian forces that invaded Crimea.”
The White House also reacted Saturday, calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government to “cease all efforts to destabilize Ukraine.”
Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Kiev on April 22, to meet government leaders and members of the civil society.
NATO Sec. Gen. Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Sunday accused pro-Russian separatists of a “concerted campaign of violence.”
“The reappearance of men with specialised Russian weapons and identical uniforms without insignia, as previously worn by Russian troops during Russia’s illegal and illegitimate seizure of Crimea, is a grave development,” he said.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is to meet next week foreign ministers from the United States, Russia and Ukraine in Switzerland to discuss efforts to de-escalate the situation.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague tweeted on Sunday Russia must “desist from steps which destabilize Ukraine and undermine the possibility of Contact Group talks.”
Ahead of a European Union foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday, Hague added: “Need to remain clear and united on Ukraine.”