Ukrainian steelworkers and police forced separatists from their positions in a key city in the east of the country on Thursday, in what could be a swing in the balance of power between the Kiev government and pro-Russian forces.
A separatist leader in the city of Mariupol, German Mandrakov, told The Associated Press that his associates fled and he was "forced" to leave the area they had controlled for weeks.
"Everyone ran away," he said. "Someone is trying to sow discord among us, someone has signed something, but we will continue our fight."
Steelworkers employed by Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov bolstered police numbers in Mariupol late Thursday night, according the AP. Around 100 groups, each consisting of two policemen and six steelworkers, were patrolling the streets on Friday, police spokeswoman Yulia Lafazan told the AP.
Akhmetov's mining company Metinvest initiated a deal between the workers, police, and community leaders on Thursday to clear the occupied buildings, the news service added.
Mariupol is one of several across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that were occupied by pro-Russian separatists in April. The New York Times said that workers had also deployed in five other cities in the eastern part of the country.
Over the weekend, parts of eastern Ukraine voted to become more independent from the rest of the country. The U.S. government said on Monday it will not recognize the results of the two sovereignty referendums.
Meanwhile, United Nations monitors said they had found an alarming deterioration in the human rights situation in east Ukraine and serious problems emerging in Crimea.
"Those with influence on the armed groups responsible for much of the violence in eastern Ukraine [must] do their utmost to rein in these men who seem bent on tearing the country apart," U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said in a statement accompanying a 37-page monitoring report.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
- James Novograd and Alexander Smith