KIEV/DONETSK, Ukraine, March 1 A leading
telecoms firm and a humanitarian group owned by Ukraine's
richest man said on Wednesday they had been forced to stop
operating in territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists
as their offices had been seized by armed men.
On Monday, separatist leaders warned they would take control
of Ukraine-run businesses in rebel-held areas if the government
in Kiev did not end a blockade by a group of Ukrainian lawmakers
and veterans on rail traffic from separatist territory.
"Our company's office in (rebel-held) Donetsk and equipment
have been seized," Ukrtelecom's director, Mikhail Shuranov, said
in a post on Facebook.
"The company has cut off the Donetsk sector from the
national network," he said. "Around 200,000 of our citizens have
lost a means of communication."
Separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said rebels were
following through on its ultimatum because Ukraine had not
lifted the blockade.
"Today since midnight companies have been being taken under
external control," separatist website DAN quoted him as saying.
Ukrtelecom is part of a financial and industrial group owned
by Ukraine's richest businessman Rinat Akhmetov, whose
power-generating and steelmaking businesses on both sides of the
eastern front line have already been hit by the blockade's
squeeze on coal supplies.
The blockade is a new phase in the three-year stand-off
between Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels that has highlighted
the abiding economic ties between the two sides despite a
simmering conflict that has killed more than 10,000.
Both the Ukrainian authorities and separatist officials have
warned of economic fallout from blocking coal supplies.
Separatists say local industrial firms are suffering, while
Ukraine says the country could suffer rolling blackouts and lost
foreign export income of up to $2 billion.
Russia said the rebels' move to take control of the
companies on its territory was partly understandable because the
blockade had put the separatists in "an even more difficult
"The steps made by the administrations of these regions, ...
can be understood to a degree," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov
A humanitarian group funded by Akhmetov that has been a
major supplier of aid to conflict-hit areas also said on
Wednesday it had been forced to halt operations in rebel-held
areas after distribution points were blocked by armed men.
In rebel-held Donetsk, a Reuters witness saw one police car
parked near the fund's distribution centre at a football arena.
Signs on the building's doors said the centre was not operating
and the entrances had been sealed with papers carrying
official-looking stamps, but there was no armed presence.
Ukraine's largest private power and coal producer, DTEK,
which is also part of Akhmetov's business empire, said the
management of its operations in separatist-held territory had
not been taken over.
It was not immediately clear if or how other
Ukraine-registered businesses operating in separatist territory
had been affected.
(Reporting by Alessandra Prentice and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev,
Reuters reporter in Donetsk,; Additional reporting by Aleksandar
Vasovic in Moscow; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by