LVIV, UKRAINE – Opponents of Ukraine’s president declared political autonomy in the major western city of Lviv on Wednesday after a night of violence that saw protesters seize public buildings and force police to surrender.
Raising the specter of a divided Ukraine split along an old historic, cultural and linguistic fault line, the regional assembly in Lviv, a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism near the Polish border, issued a statement condemning President Viktor Yanukovych’s government for its “open warfare” on demonstrators in Kiev and saying it had taken executive power locally for itself.
In other signs of fraying central government control, Poland announced that Ukrainians had blocked the Korczowa border crossing near the city, while local media said that opposition groups in other western cities, including Khmelnitsky, Ivano-Frankivsk, Uzhorod and Ternopil, had also taken over public buildings.
Hundreds of people took part in protests overnight in Lviv, an ancient city of 750,000 and the capital of a region of 2.5 million. Young men in ski masks also seized the offices of Yanukovych’s administration and forced a surrender by Interior Ministry police.
The developments, in a region traditionally hostile to the easterner Yanukovych and fiercely in favor of closer ties with the European Union, drove home the sense of a country, or at least part of it, slipping from his grip.
Mobs swept unchallenged through Lviv’s picturesque city center late on Tuesday, taking their cue from the unfolding drama in Kiev. Erecting barricades outside a police barracks, the protesters demanded their surrender. Officers filed out, hands above their heads, and were stripped of their body armor.
The barracks were set ablaze, as were the office of the state security service and the premises of the state prosecutor. Rioters tossed papers through smashed windows.
Torched cars lay upturned in the streets.
“We are the citizens of Lviv,” the crowd chanted. “We are the strongest.”
The regional parliament in Lviv accused Yanukovych’s government of “open warfare against the people.”
“The parliament takes upon itself all responsibility for the future of the region and its people,” it said in the statement.
Though many leaders on either side of the confrontation in Ukraine play down cultural and linguistic tensions, there are marked contrasts between east and west.
Lviv’s baroque and neoclassical architecture recalls its past as a regional capital of the Austrian Hapsburg empire. Between the world wars, it was Polish.
By contrast, Soviet concrete marks the cities of eastern Ukraine, which is home to coal and steel industries and was historically ruled by the Russian czars.
Many people in the east, Yanukovych’s power base, speak Russian as their first language and prefer to maintain old connections with Moscow. By contrast, many western Ukrainians are eager for closer ties with the European Union, and accuse Yanukovych of being a Kremlin puppet.
Ukrainian television said that protesters had seized the regional administration building in Khmelnitsky and had attacked the headquarters of the state security service.
Police said protesters had also seized the administration building in Ivano-Frankivsk, to the southeast of Lviv. Media reports said the main police station in Ternopil was set ablaze. In the east of the country, cities remained calm..