Ukrainian border guards stand on guard at a base close to the Russian border near Donetsk April 15, 2014. Ukrainian armed forces on Tuesday launched a "special operation" against militiamen in the country's Russian speaking east, authorities said, recapturing a military airfield from pro-Moscow separatists. REUTERS/Konstantin Chernichkin (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Pro-Russian separatists who seized a provincial administration building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Monday proclaimed the region an independent republic in a move echoing the run-up to Russia's annexation of Crimea.
The Interfax news agency said the activists demanded that a referendum be held no later than May 11 on the breaking away of the Donetsk region, which borders Russia.
In footage uploaded to the Internet, an unidentified pro-Russia activist in the provincial government headquarters in Donetsk asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to send peacekeeping troops to the region.
"Without your support, without the support of Russia, it will be hard for us to resist the Kiev junta on our own," he said, referring to the interim authorities that took power after the overthrow of Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in February.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk earlier in the day accused Russia of being behind the unrest that broke out in the country's eastern provinces Sunday and of seeking to sow instability as a pretext for dispatching troops across the border.
"The plan is to destabilize the situation, the plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country's territory, which we will not allow," he said, adding that people engaged in the unrest have distinct Russian accents.
Yatsenyuk said Russian troops remain stationed within 30 kilometers (19 miles) of the frontier.
Eastern Ukraine was the heartland of support for Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in February after months of protests. About half of the region's residents are ethnic Russians, many of whom believe Ukraine's acting authorities are Ukrainian nationalists who will oppress Russians. Ukraine's interim authorities deny they are infringing the rights of the ethnic Russian population.
Since Crimea held a secession referendum and then was annexed by Russia in March, calls for similar votes in Ukraine's east have emerged.