From calm to chaos and bloodshed in east Ukraine port

From calm to chaos and bloodshed in east Ukraine port
A man walks past a burning barricade near the city hall in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine May 10, 2014.

MARIUPOL, Ukraine - Pulling back his hospital duvet to reveal his bandaged leg Saturday, Vitaly Potenko said that it was lucky he decided to stop his seven-year-old daughter from coming with him to the victory day parade in their Black Sea hometown Mariupol.

"She really wanted to go but I knew that it might not be safe so I told her to stay at home and play on the computer," the metal factory worker, 50, told AFP.

What Potenko says happened next suggests his fears were justified. As people were heading home after Friday's ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Soviet victory in WWII, he says government gunmen showed up and strafed the crowd with bullets hitting him in the right thigh.

Laid out in the neighbouring bed, Vladimir Presnyakov shows a video he shot on his mobile phone, footage of a small crowd of nervous civilians. Suddenly gunshots ring out.

"That was when I was shot," the plumber, 36, says.

What exactly happened is difficult to pin down. Pro-Russian locals told AFP that the army fired on peaceful demonstrators and shot at the police when they refused to fire on the crowd.

The authorities in Kiev however say that a group of unknown armed assailants attacked the city's police headquarters and when troops intervened the situation spiralled into a full-scale battle.

The number of casualties also differs. Ukraine's interior minister Arsen Avakov said some 20 "terrorists" were killed plus one security agent, while medical officials put the death toll at seven.

As firemen battled Friday to extinguish the flames in the bullet-riddled police headquarters, AFP journalists saw two dead men in civilian clothes laid out on the street under blankets.

"One policeman was brought here but he died before he could be saved," said surgeon Igor Kachanov.

"In total we had 10 injured people brought in, one died, one was taken to another hospital. Four are in a serious condition."

A day after the clashes, several blocks in the centre of this normally placid port city of some 500,000 resemble a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The police are completely absent and young men build makeshift barricades around gutted, blackened buildings.

Outside the centre, the city is calm and normal life continues as families with young children stroll through the suburbs.

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