KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Hundreds of Ukrainian right-wingers were rallying in Kiev on Tuesday to protest against government policies in the wake of a deadly stand-off between radical nationalists and police in the country’s west.
The radical Right Sector group was one of the most militant factions in the massive protests in Ukraine’s capital that prompted pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country in February 2014. Since the war broke out in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russia separatists several months later, the Right Sector has fought on the government side.
However, Right Sector militants keep running into disputes with local Ukrainian authorities and Amnesty International has accused the group of holding civilians as prisoners and torturing them. The activists claim they are trying to clamp down on corruption and nepotism but Ukrainian authorities accuse Right Sector of using violence to reach its goals.
Speaking Tuesday at the national Right Sector congress, group leader Dmytro Yarosh called for a referendum to impeach President Petro Poroshenko and his government.
Yarosh also called for the recognition of volunteer battalions and their right to carry arms as well as introducing martial law, which he said, will help defeat the rebels in the east.
Right Sector supporters gathered on Tuesday evening on Kiev’s main square to support Yarosh’s motion. Most of them were civilians and appeared to be unarmed, although some young men wore camouflage.
Yarosh told the supporters at the square that the new government that replaced Yanukovych’s regime was only about “changing names” but not the political system.
“We are an organized revolutionary force that is opening the new phase of the Ukrainian revolution,” he told the rally.
The Right Sector leader garnered about 1 percent of the vote in the May 2014 presidential election. His radical anti-Russian stance prompted the Kremlin to dismiss the uprising in Kiev as a neo-Nazi coup.
The Ukrainian government has attempted to rein in the volunteer battalions who often took frontline positions in eastern Ukraine where soldiers were reluctant to go by encouraging them to join the National Guard and police forces. In reality, hundreds of men in government-controlled eastern Ukraine still carry arms without any authorization.
Two Right Sector members were killed earlier this month after the group attacked police in the western city of Mukacheve with gunfire and grenades. Police responded and then surrounded some gunmen in a wooded area of Mukacheve and have been trying to negotiate their surrender since then.
Right Sector insists that the men were trying to confront local policemen who he said were involved in a major smuggling business in the region.
Yarosh accused the government of deploying troops and weaponry to hunt down the Right Sector members instead of focusing on the war in the east: “Our guys were spilling their blood (in the east) but now they are being punished behind the lines.”
In a sign that he does not control the men in Mukacheve, he said Tuesday he did not know for sure how many men were still out there but said it was likely to be nine. He also dismissed reports that Right Sector fighters are roaming the country with the arms they were given to fight the rebels in the east.
The stand-off in Mukacheve has caused a split in Right Sector with several dozen fighters quitting the battalion to join other battalions in protest.
Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.