Although comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his annual ‘Direct Line’ call-in show on Thursday indicate that Moscow is very reluctant to meddle in Eastern Ukraine, tensions in the region continue to grow, making the situation ever less predictable.

Protesters in Eastern Ukraine's Mariupol preparing for defense. Photo: D. Garrison Golubock

MARIUPOL, Donetsk Region – A tense standoff ensued Thursday after a clash between protesters and a Ukrainian Army unit in the small hours of the morning left three dead and about 13 injured, all of them protesters.

Both sides offer opposing views of events, with the Interior Ministry saying that a mob of 300 people armed with Molotov cocktails and other projectiles attempted to seize a Ukrainian army base.

Protesters at the city hall in Mariupol claim they approached the base attempting to investigate a rumor that members of the Right Sector nationalist group were present on the site and were fired upon by members of Right Sector.

Mariupol city head Yury Khotlubei said in a statement on Thursday morning that “there is no Right Sector in the city,” adding that a referendum was scheduled for May 25 that would decide issues such as the federalization of the Donetsk Region and the official status of the Russian language. Khotlubei, a member of the Party of Regions, has not been allowed to enter his office since protesters seized the city hall on Sunday.

Several journalists were caught up in the mayhem – two photographers reported being intimidated by a jittery crowd of protesters, while a Lifenews correspondent was briefly held by local police.

By Thursday morning, protesters had retreated to barricades around the city hall, only a kilometer away from the scene of the shooting, and awaited further confrontations with government forces. Sightings of aircraft and helicopters at the local airfield and reports of military vehicles being unloaded in the port further reinforced the sense of an impending attack, though no further clashes materialized.

Local citizens ventured out into the streets again as the day wore on, and by evening the atmosphere had almost returned to normal, though local taxi drivers reported that traffic was considerably lighter than usual. Locals lounged on the benches in the small park outside the city hall, while more dedicated citizens gathered closer to hear the series of patriotic speeches given from a podium atop a barricade of tires in front of the building.

Protesters in Eastern Ukraine's Mariupol preparing for defense. Photo: D. Garrison Golubock

“There aren’t so many of us today as earlier – it's a work day after all – but we stand watch day and night,” said Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a pensioner standing among the crowd in front of the city hall. Alekseyeva explained the unrest as a result of discontent with the local political situation, expressing distrust in all local political figures, including the current government in Kyiv and the previous Yanukovych administration.

Protesters had hung numerous Russian flags and St. George ribbons (a symbol of Russian military valor) in front of the city hall, and most present expressed strong feelings in favor of Russia, demanding the return of Dmitry Kuzmenko, the pro-Russian activist chosen as mayor by the protesters who was arrested on April 5.

“Look at where America is and where Russia and Ukraine are – it's very far away! We're together, brotherly nations, America should get its hands out of our business,” a local woman said. A wide range of culprits were blamed for the disorder in Ukraine, with protesters in turns accusing U.S. President Barack Obama, Ukrainian businessman and oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and international organizations like NATO and the EU of fomenting the Euromaidan movement in Kiev.

Little was visible from outside the army base apart from broken glass and empty cartridges from the previous night's shooting, yet protesters stated that they expected an attempt by government forces to retake the city hall sometime during the night and had made preparations for defense.

Outside the dense crowd of dedicated protesters, other Mariupol residents were more circumspect about the situation and the effect it was having on their lives. Anastasia, a Mariupol native living in Donetsk, said she had planned to come home for Easter but had been warned away by her mother after Wednesday night's shooting. Though she had come home anyway, she worried whether blocked roads would prevent her from getting back to work in Donetsk and said she would avoid walking around the city center.

Other passengers on the evening train from Donetsk to Mariupol were similarly wary of the security situation, yet said it would not interfere with their travel plans. Local news portal tweeted that the city would be closed to incoming and outgoing traffic on Thursday evening, yet this seemed to have been no more than a rumor.