Armed pro-Russian separatists wearing masks surrounded a military compound in Donetsk, Ukraine on Tuesday.
DONETSK, Ukraine — Pro-Russian separatists are tightening their grip on Ukraine's embattled eastern region ahead of a referendum that insurgents plan to hold this Sunday.
The separatists are fortifying barricades around more than 20 government buildings of strategic importance with paving stones, tires and razor wire, as are several dozen roadblocks on regional highways where armed men check passing cars and scrutinize passengers' documents.
On Tuesday, more than 40 heavily armed pro-Kremlin insurgents besieged a Ukrainian military academy in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, blocking its two access points and forcing several cadets from the premises.
The separatists—armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers—said they were acting on a tip that Ukraine's far-right nationalist group Right Sector was preparing to seize weapons from a cache inside the academy compound.
The separatists took up positions behind trees and the two trucks they were driving. They then trained their sites on Ukrainian Interior Ministry troops tasked with guarding the base. One pro-Russian commander was heard giving orders to his jittery fighters.
"Hold steady. But if there is any provocation, first shoot in the air and then at them," the masked commander ordered.
The whole ordeal lasted no longer than an hour but signaled the rising tensions in the largely Russian-speaking region where pro-Russian sympathies are high.
In the end, the nationalist Right Sector group never appeared, and the academy's cadets were allowed to return to the compound, marching in unison in their freshly pressed uniforms.
Meanwhile, the separatists, in their mismatched secondhand fatigues, trundled away in the bed of their trucks.