KIEV, Ukraine — The mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city was shot in the back Monday and pro-Russia insurgents seized yet another government building as tensions rose in eastern Ukraine ahead of a new round of US sanctions.
Armed insurgents tacitly backed by Moscow are seeking more autonomy in the region from the interim government in Kiev. In a bid to ratchet up the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Barack Obama has promised to levy new sanctions on Russian individuals and companies in retaliation for Moscow’s alleged provocations in eastern Ukraine.
Hennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, was shot in the back Monday morning, his office said. Kernes was said to be undergoing surgery and “doctors are fighting for his life,” according to the city hall.
Officials have not commented on the circumstances of the shooting and it was not clear who was behind it. Kernes was a staunch opponent of the pro-West Maidan movement that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych in February and was widely viewed as the organizer of activists sent to Kiev from eastern Ukraine to harass those demonstrators.
But he has since softened his stance toward the new Kiev government and insisted that he does not support the pro-Russia insurgents or any annexation of Ukrainian territory.
Kernes is Jewish and the city is home to a large Jewish community.
The official website of the Kharkiv Jewish community describes Kernes as “Jewish by ethnicity.”
Eleonora Groysman, editor of the Jewish Ukrainian news site evreiskiy.kiev.ua also told JTA that Kernes is Jewish.
According to the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, the 2009 election campaign in which Kernes became mayor was mired with anti-Semitic hate speech targeting him and other Jewish candidates.
Kharkiv’s rabbi, Moshe Moskowitz, told Israel National News that “we are talking about a precious Jewish life, with a loving and warm relationship with the community, and we are shocked by the attempted assassination. We are praying for his safety — Moshe ben Hana.”
Kharkiv is in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian gunmen have seized government buildings, set up roadblocks or staged protests to demand greater autonomy or outright annexation by Russia.
Ukraine’s acting government and the West have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest, which they fear Moscow could use as a pretext for an invasion. Last month, Russia annexed Crimea weeks after seizing control of the Black Sea peninsula.
On Monday, masked militants with automatic weapons seized another city hall building in eastern Ukraine, this time in Kostyantynivka, 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the Russian border.
After the seizure, about 15 armed men guarded the building. Some posed for pictures with residents while others distributed St. George’s ribbons, the symbol of the pro-Russia movement.
Kostyantynivka is just 35 kilometers (22 miles) south of Slovyansk, a major city in eastern Ukraine that has been in insurgents’ hands for more than three weeks now.
President Obama said on visit to the Philippines earlier on Monday that the targets of the latest US sanctions will include high-technology exports to Russia’s defense industry. The full list, which is also expected to include wealthy allies of Putin, will be announced by officials in Washington later Monday.
The European Union is also planning more sanctions against Russia, with ambassadors from the bloc’s 28 members to meet Monday in Brussels to add to the list of Russian officials who have been hit by asset freezes and travel bans.
The increasingly ruthless pro-Russia insurgency is turning to an ominous new tactic: kidnapping.
Dozens of people are being held hostage — including seven observers, journalists and pro-Ukraine activists — in makeshift jails in Slovyansk.
The German government on Monday decried the seizure of the eight European military observers there and called for their immediate release. The observers, including three German officers, were detained Friday on allegations they were spying for NATO.
Pro-Russia militants in camouflage and black balaclavas paraded some of the captive European military observers before the media on Sunday. They also showed three captured Ukrainian security guards bloodied, blindfolded and stripped of their trousers and shoes, their arms bound with packing tape.
A Swedish officer was released Sunday and German captive Col. Axel Schneider spoke that same day, stressing at a news conference — under armed guard — that they were on an OSCE diplomatic mission and not spies.
Times of Israel staff and JTA contributed to this report.